Michael Copps, a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), stops by The Nation offices every year to talk about what is happening to our media landscape. Invariably, he let's us know that no matter what a person considers his or her #1 issue - whether it be fighting poverty, ending the war, affordable health care, or anything else - the #2 issue better be media matters.
As he recently said in an interview with Salon: "Your No. 2 issue has to be this media issue, because all those other issues you care about... are funneled and filtered through big media, if they're lucky enough to get in that funnel at all.... Then they're covered with the slant of a few particular companies."
Copps is currently battling FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's attempt to circumvent public comment and rush through an anti-democratic plan that would make it easier for a single company to own multiple media outlets in a single market. Though Martin claims he would only allow companies in the top 20 markets to own both a daily newspaper and a broadcast outlet, Copps points out that that represents approximately 43 percent of US households, and there is a major loophole allowing companies to do the same in "just about any market on the basis of meeting a few loose criteria." Martin's consolidation not only would weaken an already lacking diversity of voices in the media as well as in media ownership, it would also deepen the political crisis of our time - our downsized politics of excluded alternatives.
It's worth noting that the FCC attempted an even more extreme consolidation makeover in 2003 and an outpouring of transpartisan grassroots, citizen opposition defeated its efforts. (That proposal would have allowed a single company in one town to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the daily newspaper, the cable system and the Internet service provider - so it's not just old media that Martin has set his sights on.) The response in 2003 was a model of citizen activism that can work again. But at this crucial time, it's also important that presidential candidates show leadership, speak out, and educate the public on these issues. Some are doing that, and most are at the very least cosponsors of the bipartisan Media Ownership Act of 2007 which would prevent Martin from holding a FCC vote on the new rules - scheduled for December 18 and sure to win approval - for at least six months. Below is a look at what most of the democratic candidates are doing - or not doing - to address these issues.
Joe Biden: His campaign office directed me to this press release, in which Senator Biden stated his opposition to Martin's effort to repeal the rule which prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a television station in the same city. "The Federal Communications Commission's plan to lift its anti-monopoly regulations could have dangerous consequences," said Biden. "If this plan goes forward, two or three media conglomerates could end up controlling every broadcast medium in the country. From a safety perspective, what happens if one company controls the television, radio and internet services in a region and its servers go down during a natural disaster or terrorist attack? From a constitutional perspective, what happens when one company owns all of the airwaves in an area and it refuses to broadcast certain content? These are important security and constitutional issues best addressed by keeping the current rules in place." Biden is a cosponsor of the Media Ownership Act.
Hillary Clinton: Her campaign press office sent me this statement: "Senator Clinton is very concerned about the manner in which Chairman Martin is attempting to change the media cross-ownership rules. There has been insufficient time given for public comment. Also, the Chairman is promoting media consolidation without attending to more pressing matters: increasing women and minority ownership of media, and preserving localism in media. Accordingly, Senator Clinton is cosponsoring the Media Ownership Act of 2007 which requires that an FCC rulemaking aimed at relaxing the consolidation rules be preceded by: (1) a thorough review and comment process, (2) a rulemaking on the preservation of localism, and (3) FCC action to promote female and minority media ownership.... In 2003, she co-sponsored legislation that aimed to limit consolidation of TV stations; and in 2004 she voted against the Omnibus Appropriations Conference bill in part because it included measures that would have increased media consolidation." It's disappointing, however, that there is nothing about these pressing matters on her website - in contrast to the other "top-tier" candidates.
Christopher Dodd: Sen. Dodd is a cosponsor of the Media Ownership Act. His campaign directed me to his statement on Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal takeover in which he said, "The power of the media is swiftly being limited to a few controlling hands, which poses a serious threat to our democracy. The foundation of our democracy rests in our ability to hear from a diverse array of sources so that we can make informed decisions." The campaign also referred me to Dodd's YouTube video response to the question of what he would do to protect independent voices in the media. Dodd discusses the impact of media consolidation, the importance of net neutrality, and expanding broadband access in this video.
John Edwards: Sen. Edwards speaks out strongly about media consolidation threatening free speech; tilting the public dialogue towards corporate priorities and away from local concerns; and making it increasingly difficult for women and minorities to own a stake in our media. His campaign forwarded me this link, which offers a very detailed take on the issues, including trends and statistics regarding media consolidation; impact of consolidation and deregulation on public interest and localism; and the need to maintain net neutrality and keep corporate media from blocking access, as well as provide universal broadband. Edwards has said, "The basis of a strong democracy is a diverse and dynamic media. It's time to take away the corporate media bullhorn and let America's many voices be heard."
Dennis Kucinich: He has a strong record addressing this issue. Rep. Kucinich wants "to create a greater diversity of viewpoints in the media by breaking up the major media conglomerates, encouraging competition and quality as well as diversity. We should place new caps on media ownership and ban the granting of exceptions to those caps. We should limit the number of media outlets one corporation can own in a given medium, such as radio, print, or television. We should strictly prohibit cross-ownership and vertical integration.... Funding for public broadcasting channels on television and radio should be greatly expanded, assuring the existence of media outlets free of the influence of advertisers.... I have a strong record on media reform. I filed formal objections with the FCC to their deregulation of the media. I held hearings on Capitol Hill on what the media weren't telling people about the war."
Barack Obama: A cosponsor of the Media Ownership Act, Sen. Obama has also written previously to Chairman Martin (along with Sen. John Kerry) - "to address the issue of minority media ownership, and the impact that new rules would have on opportunities for minority, small business, and women owned firms." He also co-authored an op-ed with Kerry addressing minority ownership and diverse viewpoints. His website states that "the Federal Communications Commission has promoted the concept of consolidation over diversity.... As president, he will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum. An Obama presidency will promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve." His detailed plan also includes protecting net neutrality and universal broadband access and his internet policies have been praised by well-known digital figures like Lawrence Lessig and Matt Stoller.
Bill Richardson: The campaign sent me this statement, "Growing media ownership consolidation is a problem, and Governor Richardson will work hard to ensure that this trend does not continue along the current path. Governor Richardson will re-invigorate both the FCC and the Department of Justice to make sure that our democracy is not undermined by excessive control of the media being placed in the hands of just a few. In that vein, Governor Richardson is adamantly opposed to Kevin Martin's proposed rule-change. We must remain vigilant in preventing media consolidation, whether by law or by loophole. Our democracy depends quite seriously on it."
While there are good, strong statements, and some detailed plans from the likes of Edwards, Dodd, Obama, and Kucinich, what is lacking is the integration of this message into the candidates' basic stump speech - the kind of thing Copps battles for every day: to make citizens realize that without a free, diverse media, we're up a creek if we want the issues that matter most to us to receive a good public airing and debate. It will take strong presidential leadership, continued congressional attention, and citizen vigilance to ensure that media consolidation doesn't further erode our democracy.
As Michael Copps recently wrote in an op-ed, "I say this is hardly the time to rush headlong into more of what we know has not worked given the wreckage caused by our decades-long flirtation with the notion that Wall Street always knows best when it comes to journalism." Here's a modest proposal for the candidates: how about Michael Copps as a pro-democracy FCC Chairman come 2009?
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2007 The Nation