"A popular Government without popular information of the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
"If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn't be someone from our company. We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers products."
--Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays
On June 2 the Federal Communications Commission will take sides in the great American debate between James Madison and Lowry Mays, when it decides whether to relax the remaining limitations on media ownership. If the rules are maintained, the democratic value of media diversity wins. If greater consolidation is allowed, the media moguls will win -- and they will celebrate by launching a buying frenzy destined to reshape the American media landscape.
The choice is that stark.
Media industry analysts are in universal agreement that the dropping of barriers to monopolies will unleash a massive wave of media consolidation in the United States. Locally owned newspapers, television and radio stations will be unable to resist the pressure to sell to multinational conglomerates such as Clear Channel and News Corp. What remains of variety in local news coverage and entertainment will be replaced by canned reports from a single newsroom. At the national level, networks will merge. And in a few short years we will see a dramatic reshaping of the media system that will be great for a few big corporations but terrible for democratic discourse and cultural diversity.
As the votes approach, the Bush administration and corporate lobbyists are pulling out all the stops in order to secure a victory for these big corporations. FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the two other Republicans who make up the commission's majority are determined to make the changes, despite widespread and unprecedented opposition in Congress, among the general public and, in a rare split, from the two minority members of the FCC. The strategy of Powell, the White House, and the corporate media lobbyists is to ram through the changes as quickly and quietly as possible; this is payback time for some of Bush's major financial and political supporters.
The behind-closed-doors strategy has been aided by a major media that does a miserable job of covering itself. This momentous decision has earned perhaps 1/1,000th the media attention of California mother Laci Peterson's tragic demise. If it had received better coverage in recent weeks, the public might know more or learn that, once upon a time, media policy was made in the public interest.
Two hundred years ago, the founders recognized that the development of a free press was critical to the success of their experiment. The debate over the shape and form of that press was central to the public debate. Among the founders who gave the matter the most attention were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (along with the inevitable Thomas Paine). Madison and Jefferson understood that a free press was mandatory. They also understood that an independent press would not blossom without public policies supporting its growth.
In the 1790s Congress implemented a number of media initiatives. Copyright laws were adopted, printing subsidies were issued and newspapers and periodicals received postage discounts. These policies were no doubt influenced by the self-interest of commercial concerns at the time, but they were also genuinely justified based on the importance of a free press to democracy.
The policies worked. Within a generation, the United States had the highest literacy rate on the globe, and a range of media unique in the world.
These policies have persisted. Our largest media firms today are all based on government granted and enforced privileges -- such as monopoly rights to TV and radio frequencies, monopoly cable TV and satellite TV franchises, and copyright -- and subsidies such as the second class mailing permit.
But as media have become an agency for generating extraordinary profits, the political clout of the largest media firms has grown and they have effectively taken over media policy. The public knows little or nothing about it. Issues of democracy and self-government have ceased to play a central role in the debate, except for PR gestures, and the real fight is no longer about how to build and sustain democracy but rather how to balloon profits. Because of corporations' excessive influence, media policy has hit its nadir.
So the degree of difficulty for activists in the short term is inordinately high. Powell and the Republican majority on the FCC have boycotted 10 public hearings on media ownership since February, claiming they have no need to hear any more from regular people. Meanwhile they meet regularly with corporate CEOs and lobbyists. (Perhaps the business groups Powell speaks to will prove helpful to the U.S. Senate campaign he is rumored to be preparing.)
And what do these companies say? That the recent increase in media channels through multi-channel television and the Internet has eliminated the need for ownership regulation of broadcast media. They assert that scarcity of the airwaves -- a historic motivation for government regulation -- is no longer a relevant issue. This is a bogus claim. If the Internet and digital technologies were indeed eliminating scarcity, TV channels would be losing value because of all the new competition. The fact is that licenses to TV and radio channels still confer extraordinary monopoly market power. That is why their value continues to shoot up -- and why the legal justification for media regulation holds up.
Some in Congress understand this. In the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress advised the FCC to make changes only when market conditions had changed. It is clear that market conditions have not changed sufficiently to justify the elimination of media ownership rules. But if the FCC lets the giant firms get even larger they will, regardless of how open the broadcast spectrum becomes, have the power to ward off any new threats of competition.
The good news is that a diverse coalition is fighting back. Musicians, journalists, consumer groups, religious organizations, civic organizations and labor oppose the relaxation (or elimination) of ownership limits. Even the National Rifle Association and conservative columnist William Safire have joined the chorus of concern. The recorded public feeback on the topic has the foes of deregulation outnumbering the proponents by a margin of more than 20-1.
If the campaign to block this rewrite of the rules continues to mushroom, Chairman Powell might delay the June 2 vote. Even if Powell ignores the public pressure, mounting concerns in Congress could lead to a reversal of the worst changes.
Whatever happens, activist groups are robustly re-entering the crucial media policy debate and adding fresh voices to an issue that has long been the secretive and well-guarded domain of self-interested corporations and business trade associations. They defenders of the public interest have arrived just in time. Perhaps unwittingly, Powell and his corporate cronies have created a crucial historical moment. Either the FCC will uphold the commitment to diverse ownership and expression that has been at the heart of this democratic experiment from the days of Madison and Jefferson, or it will surrender that experiment to Lowry Mays and the media moguls.
John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, and University of Illinois professor Robert W. McChesney are the co-authors of 'Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media' (Seven Stories). They are co-founders of Free Press, a media reform network that collects information about media activism, including efforts to block the FCC rule changes.