Washington, D.C. is in the liberating people in other countries' habit these days. Mr. Copps, we the people of the United States could use more than our own fair share of liberation from our media oligopoly. About a month from today (June 2, 2003), the FCC is expected to substantially relax the regulatory cap on how many TV stations a single company may own. Right now rules bar American broadcasters from owning TV stations reaching more than 35 percent of homes. They are likely to be raised to 45 percent coverage. Further, it is very likely that rules will be lifted that limit the ability of broadcasters to buy second TV stations in their markets or bar a city’s newspaper and broadcast station from merging. While the FCC has been holding a few window-dressing public forums across the country, the real decision-making regarding the new FCC rules is being made between the few existing media companies and a government agency with appointed, unelected officials.
The FCC will do what is politically expedient, while the public interest will continue to be talked about in newspaper editorials and college textbooks. How do I know this? Because of what happened with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when the public was left completely out of the discussion.
Brian Lowry, media writer of the Los Angeles Times, has stated that the FCC new rule changes affecting consolidation and ownership of media is tremendously underreported, perhaps the most underreported news story of our time. In fact, the consolidation story is being reported, but not on the front pages of our newspapers. It is in the business and finance sections of newspapers and broadcast industry publications where only those in the know and industry insiders follow the subject. We the people have become Walter Lippmann's "bewildered herd," and are forced to function like the angry mob at the gates or the proverbial peanut gallery, occasionally whining that nothing is on to watch, but we know not where to turn for help, so we just keep watching. And by the way, no one in this room has bothered to address the addictive qualities of television. Jerry Mander wrote about the insidiousness of TV over twenty years ago in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.
It is truly ironic that as we sit here today discussing American press ownership, the United States Government is rebroadcasting Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings on Iraqi TV to show the Iraqi people what a free press looks like in a democracy.
Before we teach others about democracy, we might try practicing it here at home.
Media power is political power. No wonder the public is being left out of this major decision that affects all our lives. We’ve been asked to sit on the sidelines, keep shopping, follow the NBA playoffs or watch Must-see TV while the corporate mega media and their appointed friends in government cozy up and bring us anything but a democratic landscape of information and news we can use. If democracy is about vigorous and antagonistic debate full of a wide spectrum of voices and opinions, we’re hardly there, brothers and sisters in Iraq. We have less than a handful of media who bring us all our news and those news sources that bring us the news are increasingly dependent on their close ties to official Washington and other corporate sources of news.
Our 24-hour news cycle requires constant feeding, which advertising and publicity pre-packaged sources of news are only happy to nourish. In the federal government, the largest public relations division is inside the Pentagon, where government public relations specialists provide M-F feeds to the national media. Embedded reporters didn’t just accompany the military to the Middle East, but they also sit regularly for pre-arranged briefings from Donald Rumsfeld, Torie Clarke, and Ari Fleischer. In the corporate media environment today, the best journalist is increasingly the dutiful journalist, who understands that symbiotic relationship between official channels of information sources and the news story product. Long gone are the days of independent journalists like George Seldes, who would have gladly been kicked out of his first Washington press briefing in exchange for the neighborhood goings on back home.
Just last week a little truth emerged from the fog of war. MSNBC journalist Ashleigh Banfield told a gathering of students at Kansas State University that the American people didn’t see what happened after mortars landed in Iraq, only the puffs of smoke. There were horrors completely left out of the war coverage in the U.S. What we did see was what advertising, converging media and official sources of news want us to see—a nonstop flow of images “by cable news operators who wrap themselves in the American flag and go after a certain target demographic. It was, she said, a “grand and glorious picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable TV news. But it wasn’t journalism.”
I teach in a College of Communications where journalism concentrations are all but dead while advertising and public relations concentrations are thriving. Why? Because students are wise to the fact that the news business is where the jobs are, not creating the next Murrow or Cronkite. They know that broadcasting used to have a clear mandate for public service that’s been lost in the fog of consolidation. Try telling someone that the American people are the real landlords of the broadcast airwaves and that broadcasters are enjoying rent control perks and see what kind of looks you’ll get.
We all know the truth of what’s really going on here. When President Bush assured the Iraqi people that Iraq’s oilfields were properly owned by the Iraqi people, I couldn’t help but think about that other hot rhetoric we hear so often that the American public own the airwaves. We’re sick of empty promises. Everyone in this room needs to carry around the following statement as an organizing principle: The airwaves do not belong to the broadcasters. They do not belong to the advertisers. The owners of the broadcast airwaves, by law, are the people of the United States. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change this dynamic. We will. And it’s the best advertisement we can have to Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else about what a truly free and liberated people’s media looks like.
Nancy Snow (www.NancySnow.com) is the author of Propaganda, Inc. and Information War. She is assistant professor of communications and journalism at California State University and adjunct professor in USC's Annenberg School for Communication.