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Is Corruption an Art or a Science?
Published in the April 2001 issue of the Silicon Alley Reporter
Is Corruption an Art or a Science?
by Robert W. McChesney
With George W. Bush's theft of the presidency - a subject we are not supposed to raise in polite company, the corporate media and political establishment tell us - we can expect to see the floodgates open for the corporate media barons over at the Federal Communications Commission. "President" Bush's recent promotion of Michael Powell to Chairman of the FCC is tantamount to making Rupert Murdoch or John Malone or Sumner Redstone the chief protector of the public interest in our TV, cable and radio systems.

Am I being too harsh on public servant Powell? Well, consider the following assessments of him by three close FCC watchers: "He's a listener, an advocate, an effective policymaker," said one. "Michael Powell has demonstrated a keen intellect and a firm grasp on public policy issues," said another. "It's rare that you have somebody in public office who is so favorably regarded by all constituencies and competing industries," added yet a third person.

The three quotes come from Gary Lytle, Eddie Fritts and Robert Sachs, the heads of the trade associations for the "Bell" telephone companies, commercial broadcasters and the cable television industry, respectively. These are the very industries Powell is commissioned to regulate in the public interest. Normally these guys approach any FCC head with trepidation, in view of the power the FCC has to license access to public owned airwaves and publicly sanctioned cable TV monopolies. But they cannot contain their glee with the selection of Powell.

They love Powell for a reason. He has a record of advancing their interests, not ours.

What, specifically, is Powell recommending that the FCC do? He wants to scrap the few remaining ownership restrictions on our largest media companies. The rule limiting companies to having TV stations in no more than one-third the nation is soon to be relaxed or eliminated. The prohibition on owning multiple TV stations in the same market, or a newspaper and TV station in the same town, also are possible casualties of this deregulatory jihad.

The net result will be a tidal wave of mergers and consolidation in the media industries that may make the last five years of mega-mergers look like a Sunday school bingo game.

Look for most of the few remaining newspaper companies and cable companies to become part of the huge media conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and News Corp. that already own all the major movie studios, all the TV networks, all the music companies, most of the cable-TV channels, and much, much more. And, as a result of Powell's tenure, their firms will grow much larger, much more powerful and much more profitable and operate in less competitive markets.

Needless to say, such a concentration of media power into so few hands violates every known theory of a free marketplace of ideas in a liberal democracy. But who has time for that mumbo jumbo when there is good money to be made? So it will be party time on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs and the other investment bankers who put together these deals. George W. Bush's 2004 campaign coffers will be stuffed with tens of millions of dollars from the firms who benefit by these policies. And Michael Powell will have assured himself a long and lucrative career in the private sector upon leaving the FCC.

Powell claims that all this deregulation will eventually bring more competition to their industries, and that will make media more responsive to public concerns.

But all the evidence of ownership deregulation in communications over the past five years repeatedly shows the exact opposite. Radio ownership was relaxed in 1996, and since then over half the stations have been sold and the industry has been consolidated into the hands of a few giants, each owning hundreds of stations.

That's great for those firms, but bad for the rest of us as we are increasingly subjected to standardized commercial radio fare marinated in advertising. Telephone companies have been freed to merge, too, since 1996, and the number of players has fallen in half. And complaints about lousy telephone service have skyrocketed in the past four years.

Let's face it, if deregulation actually produced more bona fide competition, these firms would hate it. But it doesn't, so they love it. Deregulation in highly concentrated markets usually means the following: less competition, sloughing off of less profitable public service, and more profits for a handful of wealthy investors. The California power crisis has shown just how corrupt and bogus the deregulatory process is. But as long as the politicians are getting fat checks from the special interests, the public interest is nowhere to be found in these debates.

And, for the most part, Powell and his democratic predecessor, Bill Kennard, agreed that deregulating these industries was the proper thing to do; they only argued over how quickly it should be done. Perhaps that is why the commercial media were the single largest corporate contributors to the Gore campaign - to encourage him to see matters in their light.

And, in the end, that's the good news about Michael Powell's regime at the FCC: he will save the corporate media a lot of money in future campaign contributions, because Bush and Powell will give them whatever they want without even the pretense of a fight. Is this a great country, or what?

Robert W. McChesney is author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New Press) and (with John Nichols) It's the Media, Stupid (Seven Stories).


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