Media Vultures Are Coming: Freedom of Expression at Risk

As
you flip through a range of channels on your TV or browse through a
stack of newspapers and magazines at a newsstand, you may feel lucky
about living in a world where such a plethora of viewpoints is
available. It might also seem that the apparent increase in media
choices also increases the chances for the public interest to be
understood and served fairly. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.
The media world is shrinking by the day.

Welcome to 2010.

The
coming year might go down in history as that of major media
consolidation, as in concentration of media ownership in the hands of a
few large conglomerates and powerful media moguls. Predictions
regarding mergers of media companies are very bleak, and to a degree
frightening.

In
his Los Angeles Times article "2010 predictions: Another turbulent year
ahead for media", Joe Flint determines that the debate in the media
world "over which is king -content or distribution" was settled in
2009. As a result, a new wave of mergers is likely to follow. Giant
media will guzzle other giant media, which had already swallowed less
enormous media companies, who in turn had .. well, you get the point.

When
US President Thomas Jefferson made his famous assertion that "the only
security of all is in a free press," he hardly had media consolidation
in mind. Giant media companies reflect the giant, albeit specific
business interests of their owners and their advertisers. Neither News
Corp nor Viacom are dedicating their services to serving the public.
Such companies are dedicated only to financial growth, even at the
expense of what matters, or should matter most to the majority of their
consumers. In other words, while media companies proudly propagate the
value of democracy, as they gain from a very specific interpretation of
it, they are neither democratic nor representative.

How
will democracy, mass participation or public interest be served by the
Comcast Corp.'s purchase of NBC's Universal or the Disney Company's
acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc.? The media industry has turned
into a jungle, where the survival of the fittest is determined not by
value of content, or by contribution to society, but rather by 'smart'
business deals that ensure survival in an increasingly demanding media
market.

Times
are changing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was in fact
established with a clear mandate (the Communications Act of 1934) to
operate in the benefit of "public convenience, interest, or necessity."
Whether the FCC lived up to that mandate or faltered in some of its
responsibilities, the fact remains that the FCC is now part and parcel
of the incessant efforts aimed at concentrating the ownership of the
media in fewer hands. More, even the courts that kept the FCC in check
might possibly concede in favor of more media consolidation.

"Get
ready for a flood of media consolidation deals," Ira Teinowitz wrote in
theWrap.com. The reason is simple, but requires a short detour.

In
the mid 1990's, the FCC began relaxing its regulations on media
ownership. In 1996 a process of "deregulation" led to a wave of
mergers, as thousands of radio stations were sold to a few larger
companies, and TV ownership became more concentrated than ever before.
In 2003, the FCC once again moved to deregulate US laws regarding
media, and this time the new media ownership laws targeted local media
across the US. Fortunately, a US court moved in to thwart the FCC's
concessions that seemed to mainly serve large media conglomerates. But
the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit's decision is
being challenged once more.

The
economic recession in the US has hit many newspapers hard. One hundred
and fifty newspapers have either gone out of business altogether or are
now online, the Seattle PI and the Christian Science Monitor being
major examples. Thousands of media outlets across the US are barely
breaking even and many are struggling to come up with a viable business
model, with little hope on the horizon.

The
time is ripe for media vultures to make their move. In 2007, the court
blocked the FCC's attempt to change the rules of ownership. Now it is
reconsidering that decision. "A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit
Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which had put the stay in
effect...ordered the FCC and consumer groups to 'show cause' by mid
January (2010) why the stay should not be dropped."

If
the rules are reversed, the mergers and further media consolidation
will affect the top twenty markets in the US. Knowing what we know
about the history of encroachment of large media companies, we can only
guess that this is just the beginning of further concentration of media
ownership, and subsequently the stifling of freedom of expression for
the large majority of people, especially those whose opinion is not
consistent with the business (or political and ideological) interests
of media owners and their benefactors.

Unfortunately,
this trend is not confined to the US. The economic recession is global,
and giant media companies are not operating within specific geographic
boundaries.

"The
Spanish media sector saw the start of a wave of consolidation amid
signs that at least two of them were close to announcing a tie-up,"
reported the Financial Times on December 17. This seems to be a
repeated media-related news story in various countries. More, the media
consolidation is felt in all media sectors, including film, music and
others.

The
continuation of this trend is terrible news for public interest, civil
society and democracy as a whole. We must resist shameless efforts of
the few at owning everything we see, hear and read. By owning all the
influences that shape our views of our surroundings and the world at
large, the public will soon be forced to surrender every available
outlet of expression, and eventually its very self-definition. Yes,
even the way we define ourselves will ultimately be determined by a
billionaire in some penthouse, who makes his wealth selling us packaged
lies as news and trash as entertainment.