The Federal Communications Commission is about to give Big Media a big gift. Media activists are trying to take it back.
This year, American voters will select a new President, 535 House Representatives, and 35 Senators. The winners will determine the duration of the war in Iraq, the fate of universal health care coverage and policies on issues from climate change to immigration, torture to fair trade.
Citizens are not the only ones with stakes in the outcome. The Big Media companies that provide most Americans with their news and information – General Electric (which also produces military equipment), News Corporation (owned by Rupert Murdoch), Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, Clear Channel Communications and chain newspaper companies such as Gannett and Tribune – have a lot on the line. That’s why lobbying expenditures from the media and telecommunications industry exceed those from defense, energy and agribusiness. It’s also why this year, once again, the time and space allotted for news coverage of policy issues and where candidates stand will be a small fraction of what’s allotted for entertainment and soft feature stories. We’ll get Britney over Baghdad. American Idol over American Empire. And then, come November, we’ll debate why so few Americans bothered to vote.
It’s not supposed to work this way. In theory, democratic societies take special care to build robust and democratic media systems, because voters need quality journalism to make informed decisions. But in recent decades, the United States has done the reverse. Since the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan embarked on a course of radical deregulation, US media policies have ushered in an age of unprecedented consolidation, with chains and conglomerates pushing small, independent, female and minority-owned media companies out of business. In his 1983 treatise, The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian warned that 50 multinationals, “all interlocked in common financial interest with other massive industries and with a few dominant international banks,” controlled the majority of the leading outlets. In the latest edition, published in 2006, those 50 had consolidated into five.
Today, a growing social movement of US citizens is calling for new policies to break up the media behemoths. But Big Media companies have a strong voice, too, and this year, once again, they are demanding even more relaxed ownership rules. Due to a bizarre and profoundly anti-democratic feature of American government, they may well get what they want.
Since 1934, when Congress passed the Communications Act, US media policies have been set by an independent government agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Five FCC Commissioners have full authority to regulate interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The commissioners, who serve five-year terms, are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. No more than three can belong to the same political party, which means that ordinarily the President’s party has a solid 3-2 majority, and can push through its agenda, no matter how unwise or unpopular.
There are some limits, however, and in 2003 the FCC failed to get around them. As American citizens from all political persuasions and regional locations rallied to complain about the rise of homogenized Big Media companies such as Clear Channel, News Corporation and Disney, then-Chairman Michael Powell (the son of Colin Powell) got his fellow Republican Commissioners to support a package of deregulatory rules that violated the US Constitution. In the now famous case, Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC, a US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s order and pushed Chairman Powell straight out of office . . . and right into the arms of a multi-billion dollar private equity firm that buys media companies.
Powell is hardly the first FCC leader to take the revolving door from the regulator’s office to the corporations that the FCC regulates. But he may well have been the most brazen. According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), during the years leading up to the 2003 deregulatory order, FCC officials were “showered with nearly $2.8 million in travel and entertainment [in media policy meccas such as Paris, Hong Kong, and Rio de Janeiro] . . . most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries.” Powell, who as Chairman could set the FCC’s policy agenda, “chalked up the most industry sponsored travel and entertainment among active commissioners during the period covered by the study – 44 trips costing $84,921.” The findings, which got little coverage in the media itself, caused CPI founder Charles Lewis to complain that “the FCC is in the grips of the industry,” captured by the companies it is supposed to contain.
In 2007, the new chairman, Kevin Martin, vowed that he had learned from Powell’s mistakes. At his direction, the FCC held a series of six public hearings about media ownership, each designed so that citizens could express their preferences and concerns before the Commission. The hearings were a resounding success. From Los Angeles to Tampa, hundreds of citizens packed auditoriums and waited hours for a chance to speak their minds. At the final hearing, held in Seattle last November, more than 1,000 people poured into a town hall to participate. Their message was unmistakable: America’s experiment with consolidation has been an unmitigated disaster. The policies that allow Big Media companies to dominate have undermined all three of the values that the FCC was supposed to promote: market competition, viewpoint diversity and local coverage. It was time for a change. The Commissioners listened patiently as citizens made this argument in city after city. Then they ignored it altogether.
Just one working day after the Seattle hearing, the New York Times published an op-ed by Chairman Martin, in which he announced a proposed rule change that would allow media conglomerates to grow even bigger. The key change involved gutting the 32-year-old “cross-ownership” ban, which prohibits newspaper companies from owning and operating broadcast stations in cities where they also publish papers. In Martin’s proposal, companies would be allowed to cross-own in the top 20 markets, as well as in a countless number of places where generous loopholes justified a waiver.
To justify his proposal, Chairman Martin released a series of official research studies, commissioned by the FCC. But who conducted the studies? What questions did they ask? What methods did they use? What evidence did they consider, or rule out? The public never had a chance to take up these issues; nor did the Democrats on the Commission, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who were shut out of the planning process. To no one’s surprise, the three Republicans voted together in mid-December to pass the new ownership order, while the two Democrats dissented.
“Today’s decision would make George Orwell proud,” said Copps in response to the ruling. “We claim to be giving the news industry a shot in the arm – but the real effect is to reduce total newsgathering. We shed crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers, yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P 500 average. We pat ourselves on the back for holding six field hearings across the United States – yet today’s decision turns a deaf ear to the thousands of Americans who waited in long lines for an open mic to testify before us.”
Copps and Adelstein promised to challenge their colleagues on the Commission, but since there are only two votes between them, their power was limited. Congress, however, has the power to reject an FCC rule-making with a rarely used “Resolution of Disapproval,” and on March 5, 2008, US Senator Byron Dorgan (a Democrat from North Dakota) – along with co-sponsors Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry – proposed one.
Turning back the FCC’s latest deregulatory push requires majority votes in both the House and the Senate. But it is also subject to Presidential veto, which means that George W. Bush could give Big Media a generous thank you gift before he leaves office. If that happens, it will come at the public’s expense.
It’s time to fix the FCC. That’s a job that requires far more dramatic action than we’ll get from any of this year’s political candidates. However, there are already millions of citizens who are taking up the cause. With groups like Free Press, SavetheInternet.com, MoveOn.org, and the Youth Media Council leading the way, Americans may one day reclaim their media. Stay tuned.
_Eric Klinenberg is an associate professor at New York University and author of Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media.