The Federal Communications Commission, chaired by Bush administration appointee Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell), is set to further deregulate rules governing the concentration of ownership of the nation’s print and broadcast media outlets. Specifically Powell, and his Republican Party majority on the five-member commission, plan to abandon a 1975 rule that prohibits one company from owning a newspaper and television station — or multiple TV stations — serving the same market.
The commission, which has scheduled a June 2 vote on these rule changes, is also expected to eliminate restrictions limiting a television network’s national coverage area and concentration of ownership of local radio stations. Although Powell only scheduled one public hearing on the proposed deregulation, thousands of citizens have registered their opposition to the plan by attending nine semi-official hearings organized around the U.S. and writing Congress and the FCC.
Many predict that if implemented, the rule changes will result in an extreme transformation of the nation’s media and create an ever-shrinking number of media monopolies which offer less diversity of opinion on the airwaves. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, who takes a critical look at the deregulation plan and describes the broad coalition of groups that are now fighting for the democratization of the nation’s media system.
John Nichols: What we’ve got are six rule changes at the FCC. The FCC is the Federal Communications Commission, it’s a five-member regulatory body that is essentially delegated the power to make bureaucratic decisions as regards to media, and that delegation comes from Congress. These rule changes are not your standard bureaucratic tinkering to make sure an airwave is properly regulated or something like that. This is essentially a knocking down of the barriers that have prevented corporate monopoly in a lot of areas of media. I know that a lot of your listeners would believe correctly that the media is too corporate, too commercial, too vapid, and all the other complaints that we could make. But these rule changes would actually make it dramatically more “corporate conglomerated,” commercial, etc. They would do so by allowing one company to — if all the rule changes go through — own the newspaper, two television stations, eight radio stations, the cable system and the prim ary Internet site in a community. The rule changes that they are proposing are the striking down of the newspaper cross-ownership rules. Now, the newspaper cross-ownership rules sounds like just standard bureaucratic jargon, but what it really boils down to is that for the better part of a quarter century, we’ve had a law in this country that you cannot own the newspaper and broadcast stations in the same market. Now there’s a few markets around country where grandfather clauses allowed that sort of cross-ownership. But in most places, it’s not allowed. This would get rid of that rule.
Another change would get rid of the rule that bars you from owning TV and radio stations in the same market. And there’s also a rule change that would allow networks to merge at the national level and various other pieces of tinkering that go around these core changes. What you end up with is a situation where the largest TV conglomerates in this country will be able to own more media than they’ve ever been allowed to own before. And the reason that this change is being brought up is not because a single citizen said, “I want Rupert Murdoch to be richer. I want the telecommunications corporations that already own so much of our media to get bigger.” No citizen came forward and said that. There is not a single scrap of evidence that suggests that anyone in America, not even any member of Congress suggested it.
What happened is, the telecommunications conglomerates that control more than 90 percent of our broadcast communications now in the U.S., the telecommunications conglomerates decided that they wanted to get bigger. And so they hired lobbyists and pressured the FCC and the Bush administration, which controls Michael Powell and the FCC, to make these changes.
Between The Lines: Where are we at now in terms of the number of companies that control the lion’s share of our print, radio, television, cinema, book publishing, magazines, etc.?
John Nichols: We’re now down to, in the most recent calculations, six. Although, even that is a bit deceptive, because many of these companies have partnership deals, where they essentially — even when they are separately owned — operate as one company. It’s reasonable, to say, as Ted Turner did a couple of weeks ago, five companies control 90 percent of all commercial communications in the United States.
Between The Lines: What are opponents of these deregulatory measures at the FCC doing now to change the outcome, or at least influence public opinion about this kind of letting loose of even more corporate conglomerates from gobbling each other up?
John Nichols: What activists are doing is mounting the most significant campaign ever as regards to an FCC rule change. And really, what I think is the beginning of the most significant media reform movement this country has ever seen. It’s incredibly heartening to see what’s going on. We’ve never had a situation in the past where city councils, state legislatures are passing the kinds of resolutions they are now. We’ve never had the kind of broad-based coalition come together on an issue like this. It’s amazing, really. And what they’re doing is a lot of the core work. They’re getting people to write the FCC. They’re getting people to show up at FCC hearings, although there’s very few of those. And most importantly, they’re getting members of Congress to speak up on these issues. One of the best things that’s been happening, as I’ve mentioned before, around this country are these efforts to pass local city council resolutions saying “Don’t do this.” The Chicago effort result ed in a 50-to-nothing vote on the city council there in opposition. The Seattle effort, overwhelmingly, the Vermont effort overwhelmingly. And so, people can organize in their hometown level and it does matter.
What we know is, Michael Powell is a political animal; the people at the FCC are very conscious of this opposition. It has an impact. Even if they go ahead with the changes, this kind of activism can build a base that will convince Congress to roll the changes back. Congress has the power to do that. It can’t let this be left in the backroom to the television conglomerates, the media conglomerates anymore. This thing has got to be pulled out into the light of day. And Congress has to make sure the FCC does not throw down all the rules and make it possible for us to see a corporate feeding frenzy that will ultimately diminish not just our democracy, but our culture.
Contact Media Reform Network, the coalition organizing opposition to FCC deregulation by calling (413) 585-1533 or visit their Web site at www.mediareform.net