Though they already dominate every medium that provides information and entertainment to the American people, the nation’s largest media corporations now are poised to gain dramatically greater control over broadcast, cable and print communication.
A Feb. 19 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia nullified two long-standing government regulations limiting the size of media companies that use the public airwaves. If the court’s decision stands, there will no longer be limits on the same company owning television stations and cable franchises in the same market. And the court has cleared key hurdles that might have slowed the Federal Communications Commission in a move to eliminate a rule limiting the number of TV stations that a single company can own.
All of this is great news for FCC chairman Michael Powell, whose tenure is shaping up to be a deregulation frenzy that will make Enron’s work in the utility sector look unambitious. Even before the appeals court ruling, Powell was working to relax or eliminate these and other limits on media monopoly – including the last barriers to a single corporation gaining dominance of print, broadcast and cable communications in a single market. Powell is on record as being determined to enact his “reforms” as quickly as possible.
The result of all this deregulation, should it proceed, by all accounts would make the past decade of unprecedented media deal-making look like a Wednesday night bingo game at the local old folks home. For the first time, media giants that have controlled TV station empires – Disney, News Corp., Viacom, General Electric – would be able to merge with or acquire media empires built on cable franchises, such as AOL Time Warner and AT&T-Comcast. As Blair Levin, a Legg Mason analyst and former FCC chief of staff, puts it, the ruling “allows for a powerful new entity we have never seen before – something that combines both cable and broadcasting assets.”
That is just the half of it. These companies would also be able to acquire stations in every market in the nation. Just look to radio, which experienced a similar deregulation in 1996, to see where that will lead. Radio is now dominated by a handful of large firms that have standardized production and revved up the commercialism.
Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union puts the court decision in context: “This is earth-shattering. The end result could be the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen.”
And the worst is yet to come: If the FCC eliminates the ban on corporations owning TV stations and newspapers in the same market, newspaper chains – Tribune Co., Cox, New York Times, Washington Post, Gannett – will be hooking up with the aforementioned giants faster than you can say: “one source of news.”
The only good news in the appeals court ruling was the court’s rejection of a claim by lawyers for big media that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that, even as Michael Powell seeks to destroy the last limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful members, such as Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-N.C., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., are interested in doing just that. But they are going to need the backing of a genuine media reform movement if they are to have any hope of winning their fellow members over to a fight to reassert that principle that Americans have a right to a diverse media that offers more viewpoints than that of one monopolizing mega-corporation.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. Robert W. McChesney, a former UW professor, is now a professor of communications at the University of Illinois. Nichols and McChesney co-authored “It’s the Media, Stupid!” (Seven Stories) and in a December article for The Nation called for the formation of a media reform movement.