An Assault on Media Diversity and Democracy

President Bush is the lamest of lame-duck chief executives, with no moral authority, no legislative majority and no popular domestic or foreign-policy agendas. So what can he do with the remaining months of a failed presidency? Make his corporate allies rich and destroy the essential underpinnings of American democracy.

To that end, Bush's chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has initiated a scheme to radically rewrite media ownership rules so that one corporation can own the daily newspapers, the weekly "alternative" newspaper, the city magazine, suburban publications, the eight largest radio stations, the dominant broadcast and cable television stations, popular internet news and calendar sites, billboards and concert halls in even the largest American city.

This "company-town" scheme, which would be achieved by lifting current limits on media cross-ownership, is the long-held dream of media moguls such as NewsCorp's Rupert Murdoch and Tribune Company-buyer Sam Zell. With one FCC vote, media billionaires will be able to become media multi-billionaires by controlling the entire communications landscapes of major metropolitan areas -- and by extension whole regions and states.

The mogul's dream is the citizen's nightmare. With this rewrite of the rules, local, state and national democratic processes would be run through the wringer of media monopolies designed to reap massive profits - while comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted in a manner that maintains the political and economic status quo. Basic liberties -- freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition for the redress of grievances -- would exist largely within boundaries established and policied by local media managers.

It's an Orwellian scenario that the American people rejected overwhelming in George Bush's first term, when three millions citizens and activist groups of the left and right united to oppose a similar set of rule changes proposed by Martin and then-FCC chair Michael Powell in 2003. The public outcry influenced an intervention by the federal courts that thwarted the hopes of the Bush Administration to deliver on a big promise to big-media owners.

Now, the FCC is attempting in these waning days of the Bush era to meet the demands of its big-media allies. And Martin, an ambitious Republican who hopes to satisfy media corporations sufficiently to secure the campaign money he will need to launch a political career in his native North Carolina, is more sly than Powell. He's trying to rewrite the rules quickly and quietly.

Only this week, in the course of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, was it revealed that the FCC chair plans to have the committee vote on his radical rule changes before Christmas. Martin has the votes, as he and two other Republican members of the FCC form a majority that can defeat the committee's two dissident Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.

Only popular and official outcry, of the sort heard in 2003, will stop the Bush Administration from delivering for big media. And Martin's plan is to move so rapidly that there is no time for serious scrutiny of the implications of the rule changes, and, of course, no time for the opposition to organize.

An official facade of proper procedures will be attached to the administration's radical assault on media diversity and local democracy. But whatever hearings and studies may be rushed out in the coming weeks by an FCC establishment that already has been revealed as determined to game the process will be nothing more than window dressing. As Mark Cooper, the veteran director of research at Consumer Federation of America, says of Martin: "The chairman has already decided what rule changes he wants to make -- he is just going through the motions. The FCC hasn't even received all of the public comment in this proceeding, and Martin is already scheduling a vote."

What will stop Martin and Murdoch? The right signals from Capitol Hill must be sent. And they are starting to come. Two key senators, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, have written Martin and other FCC members, declaring that, "We do not believe the Commission has adequately studied the impact of media consolidation. The FCC should not rush forward and repeat mistakes of the past. The Commission is under considerable scrutiny with this proceeding. We strongly encourage you to slow down and proceed with caution."

That's the necessary message. But it must be amplified -- in Congress and in the communities across America that will become media "company towns" if Kevin Martin, George Bush and Rupert Murdoch get their way.

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy -- The New Press.

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