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Media Maneuvers: Why the Rush to Waive Cross-Ownership Ban?

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The Republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission last week turned a loophole in an important ban on the cross-ownership of media outlets inside out. And they did so in the very local media marketplace, Chicago, where New Deal progressives took a stand against corporate dominance of the news.

There are lessons today’s progressives need to learn about that fight 60 years ago—lessons both political and legal which will surely play out across the nation as conservatives try to grab for all they can in the last year of the Bush administration. Progressives should take a page from FDR’s media diversity playbook.

“Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations,” wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Federal Communications Commission Chairman James Fly. That was 1940, at the end of a second FDR administration when the New Dealers were still battling a conservative print media and a conservative Supreme Court to fix the great debacle of American capitalism—the Great Depression.

FDR’s fireside chats and his ready access to radio allowed him to speak directly to Americans and continue to push a progressive agenda. But FDR was becoming increasingly concerned about the purchase of radio operations by the newspaper publishers.

One of the most vehement Roosevelt-haters was Col. Robert R. McCormick, the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. McCormick considered it his duty to remove Roosevelt from office and he used every means at his disposal to further this aim, including radio station WGN(AM), which the Chicago Tribune had been operating since 1924.

It is difficult today to imagine the power of newspapers in the 1940s, especially those newspapers that, like the Chicago Tribune, were part of the Associated Press, which held special influence over public opinion. But there is little doubt that FDR understood what he was up against. He understood not only how to use media effectively, but also the importance of media ownership and the rules that determined media ownership.

It would be the Roosevelt Justice Department and the Roosevelt Supreme Court that would generate perhaps the first modern First Amendment decision. It also happened to be an antitrust case. And while the Associated Press was the first-line opponent of the United States, McCormick’s Chicago Tribune was the second-line opponent.

As a member of the Associated Press, McCormick objected to the membership application of the Chicago Sun newspaper. One way of keeping new members out of AP was to charge them excessive fees to join. The Roosevelt Justice Department argued that the actions of the Tribune and the Associated Press were a violation of antitrust law.

The companies, in turn, took the issue to the Supreme Court. They argued that the Roosevelt Justice Department was violating their First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black responded that just because AP and the Tribune handle news while other companies handle goods "does not afford the publisher a peculiar Constitutional sanctuary… Freedom to publish means freedom for all and not for some … Freedom of the press from government interference doesn’t sanction repression of freedom by private interests."

Indeed, as Black wrote, the First Amendment “rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.”

It would take the FCC another 30 years to align itself with the Supreme Court regarding media diversity and to finally take action on FDR’s concern over newspaper ownership of broadcast operations by instituting a ban on the cross-ownership. But the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban contained a giant loophole. Those combinations which were in existence at the time of the ban in 1975 would be allowed to continue until there was a change in ownership.

The Republican majority on the FCC, consisting of Chairman Kevin Martin, and Commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate, recently turned this loophole inside out. Billionaire real estate mogul Sam Zell is buying the Tribune Corporation. And he wants to keep WGN(AM) and WGN-TV. Instead of ruling that a new owner triggers the removal of the “grandfather” waiver because the Tribune’s ownership of a major radio, television, and newspaper operation in the same market has gone on long enough, the three conservatives at the FCC ruled that the “uniquely long-term symbiotic relationship between the broadcast stations and the newspaper warrants a permanent waiver.”

Yes, a permanent waiver.

Instead of pursuing “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources” the conservative majority ruled that “forced separation of the Tribune, WGN-TV, and WGN(AM) would diminish the strength of important sources of quality news and public affairs programming in the Chicago market and that any detriment to diversity caused by the common ownership is negligible given the nature of the market.”

Notice the shift of frame from democracy to market.

Notice, too, that Martin, McDowell, and Tate have completely ignored the facts of the Chicago market and the testimony of Chicagoans. As Charles Benton of the Benton Foundation testified at the FCC Media Ownership Hearing in Chicago on September 20:

Chicago media ownership is too concentrated and predominantly non-local: Four firms control 58 percent of the entire local news market in Chicago. Together, four companies (Tribune Company, Clear Channel, CBS, and Bonneville International) control over two-thirds of the revenues from radio in the Chicago market. Non-local owners control nearly two-thirds of Chicago’s commercial radio stations.

The opinions of the two Democrats on the Commission, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, reveal their justifiable outrage at “a brazen reversal of thirty years of settled precedent.” But what say progressives?

Just as FDR and the New Deal Progressives understood that media consolidation posed a major problem in a democracy, modern progressives need to understand the importance of this battle. As the Center for Public Integrity reports, the vast majority of Zell’s political contributions go to support conservative candidates and causes. Is Zell a modern Col. McCormick waiting in the wings to join hands with Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh?

Conservatives, including conservatives in media, are frantic to get a wide range of regulations that favor the interests of big business in place as soon as possible. They are justifiably concerned that a public fed up with seven years of failed conservative policies in Iraq, a souring economy, and rising health care costs will put a stronger progressive voice in Congress and in the White House.

A pro-big business Supreme Court aligned with Murdoch, Limbaugh and Zell and ready to battle a progressive in the White House begins to sound a lot like the early years of the FDR administration. Will progressives sound like FDR and commit to creating media policy that actually serves democracy and promotes diverse and antagonistic sources of news?

For more information, see:

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org