Put aside, for a moment, the national political posturing surrounding the so-called fiscal cliff, the strife in the Mid-East, the growing threat of climate change, and focus for a few minutes on what some senators are calling the most serious threat to democracy facing the nation today: the FCC’s renewed push to allow greater media consolidation in the country’s largest media markets.
The proposed rule change by the FCC would allow large corporations to own newspapers, two TV stations, eight radio stations and the local Internet provider in the top 20 markets in the country. I say large corporations from a practical perspective: no small corporations could afford such a proposition. But Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (which owns Fox News) could — and they’ve been looking at just such a deal with The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, which they are currently prohibited to own because of existing media properties in those markets. Besides News Corp., other large media companies include Disney, Comcast, Viacom (owner of NBC), CBS and Time Warner.
The obvious problem is that giant media corporations necessarily limit a broader range of opinion and perspective — not to mention, in Murdoch’s case, a definitive bias. And when you put the economic power of such huge companies in a media marketplace, they can prevent smaller, independent media companies from getting established and creating a unique voice in that market. Having the top 20 media markets in the nation under the thumb of Rupert Murdoch, or anyone else be they liberal or conservative, simply does not bode well for a democracy that depends on an informed public to govern.
What’s equally troubling about these larger media conglomerates is that they becoming increasingly removed from their civic tasks of serving the communities they represent and become more focused on growing the bottom line — most often by providing entertainment in a news platform. It has been the demise of TV news since the days of Walter Cronkite. And, in the process, they decimate local and state news coverage along with community affairs coverage.
Most troubling, perhaps, is that the proposed rule change goes against the very mission of the FCC, which has been tasked by Congress, according to a recent letter opposing the rule changes by 10 U.S. Senators, including Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy, “to promote localism and diversity in America’s broadcast system.” While the current rules have not accomplished those goals, the letter continues, the rules “remain a bulwark against mass consolidation and stand to preserve local voices.”
Tasked with that goal, the FCC’s own report released this week, reports, according to the senators’ letter, that “ownership by women and minorities remains at abysmally low levels. Women own just under 7 percent of all full-power commercial radio and television broadcast stations, while racial and ethnic minorities control only 5 percent of these TV stations and 8 percent of these radio stations.”
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, appointed by President Barack Obama, has acted to protect the public interest on several previous instances, but several journalists that follow media issues suggest the recent push by the FCC seem to be based on a technical point, rather than on public need or by its overwhelming objection of the idea in the recent past. Similar ideas were floated during the Bush administration — in 2003 and 2008 — and were rejected both times by an outraged public. In both of those instances, three million public comments were solicited and 99 percent were opposed. Among the opponents at the time were the freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Early reports were that the FCC was seeking to take all comments before Dec. 26, and make a ruling shortly thereafter. News reports have since confirmed that the FCC has delayed that schedule to shortly after the New Year, unless more hearings are held. With a campaign sponsored by the 10 senators opposing the measure in its initial weeks, opponents of the measure report that more than 100,000 people have signed a petition telling the FCC to abandon its proposed changes that give more power to large media corporations, more than 600 people have called Congress to get their representatives and senators to oppose it, and more than 40 local and national civil rights organizations have raised concerns about the proposed changes as well. Interested readers can find out more about the issue at www.fcc.gov, or noted journalist Bill Moyers has been spearheading a campaign against the measure as well, and will host an interview with Sen. Sanders this Sunday on the issue. Readers can find out times for that show and more information, plus an action page, at www.BillMoyers.com.
Why bother? In today’s increasingly partisan media world, insuring a broad perspective of viewpoints in the media is critical to a healthy democracy. Without it, good luck understanding and deliberating on those other critical issues of our times.
Angelo S. Lynn