AUSTIN, Texas — Now here's a dandy example of the kind of thing that never makes it to the front page or the top of the news broadcast, but that affects absolutely everyone. The Federal Communications Commission, led by Michael ("my religions is the market") Powell, is fixing to remove the last remaining barriers against concentration of media.
This means one company can own all the radio stations, television stations, newspapers and cable systems in any given area. Presently, 10 companies own over 90 percent of the media outlets. Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism say these are the most sweeping changes in the rules that govern ownership of American media since the 1940s. The ownership rules were put in place after we had seen how totalitarian governments use domination of the media to goad their countries into war.
We already know what happens when the free-market zealots remove restrictions on ownership. In 1996, the FCC eliminated its rules on radio ownership. Conglomerates now own hundreds of stations around the country. One company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200 stations, and there are 30 percent fewer station owners than there were before 1996. The result is less local news and local programming, since the formats are programmed at headquarters. Clear Channel owns as many as six or seven stations in a market, broadcasting generic country, generic pop, generic oldies, etc.
The fearless investigative television journalism we have all come to expect (an hour-long special on Michael Jackson's face in the works) will not be improved by this move. The FCC is doing this in an almost covert way. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps reports that only under pressure did the commission agree to hold one lone public hearing on it, in Richmond, Va.
A coalition of consumer and media advocacy groups presented a 140-page filing that shows joint ownership of newspaper and broadcast outlets fails to meet the constitutional requirement, set out by the Supreme Court in 1945, that "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the people."
In 1987, FCC commissioners appointed by Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine, and that has already had a stunning effect on political debate in this country. That same year, Congress put the Fairness Doctrine into law, but Reagan vetoed it with this memorable rationalization, "The Fairness Doctrine is inconsistent with the tradition of independent journalism." The Fairness Doctrine had been upheld by the Supreme Court in a 1969 decision that viewed the airwaves as a "public trust" and said fairness required the public trust to accurately reflect opposing views. In a 1986 decision, the D.C. Federal Court of Appeals in a 2-to-1 decision upheld a new FCC rule refusing to apply the Fairness Doctrine to television text. The two prevailing judges were Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork.
Edward Monks, a lawyer in Eugene, Ore., did a report for the newspaper there last year on the prevalence of right-wing hosts on radio talk shows. "The spectrum of opinion on national political commercial talk radio shows ranges from extreme right wing to very extreme right wing — there is virtually nothing else." Monks notes the irony that many of these right-wing hosts spend much of their time complaining about "the liberal media."
On the two Eugene talk stations, Monks found: "There are 80 hours per week, more than 4,000 hours per year, programmed for Republican and conservative talk shows, without a single second programmed for a Democratic or liberal perspective. ... Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society. There is nothing fair balanced or democratic about it."
To point out the obvious, broadcasters and their national advertisers have a clear stake in promoting the views of those who advocate lower taxes on the rich and on big corporations. What is so perfectly loony about the FCC's proposal to unleash yet another round of media concentration is that it is being done in the name of "the free market."
Is the free market not supposed to encourage competition rather than lead to its disappearance? The U.S. now ranks 17th, below Costa Rica and Slovenia, on the worldwide index of press freedom established by the Reporters Without Borders.