The sudden devotion of Washington regulators to stamping out indecency on the airwaves reached new heights Thursday, as the FCC levied an unprecedented fine of nearly $500,000 against the "Howard Stern Show" for material aired last April. Following the agency’s lead, Congress will likely pass legislation in the coming weeks that includes the revocation of stations’ broadcast licenses for repeated indecent statements — a threat that prompted Clear Channel, the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, to permanently drop Stern’s show from its line up. Although Stern’s show is certainly offensive to many viewers, lost in the media circus over his sophomoric antics and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" are critically important problems of media concentration and quality that demand sustained scrutiny.
While addressing offensive programming on radio and television is an important charge of the FCC, attention should not be diverted from the FCC’s reluctance to halt the increasing consolidation of the media which could have disturbing consequences for years to come. As William Safire recently wrote, a "supine Congress and a feckless majority of the [FCC] have [failed] to protect our access to a variety of news, views, and entertainment." Rather than blocking the "arms race of mergers" among large media conglomerates, exemplified by Comcast’s recently-announced bid for Disney, or defending the "public interest," as it is required to do by law, the FCC has enthusiastically permitted fewer and fewer companies to control more and more of what we watch, see, and hear — all under the guise of promoting competition.
Last summer, the FCC gutted long-standing rules ensuring competition among owners of media outlets — despite receiving hundreds of thousands of comments from the public protesting the changes. The debate over these rules can be distilled to one fundamental question: are local values and vigorous democratic debate strengthened or weakened when giant media corporations control all outlets for news and entertainment in communities across the nation?
We all have a stake in media policy because we all depend on mass media — television, newspapers, the Internet, and radio — more than we may realize. Who controls the news we use and the viewpoints we see is highly dependent on the business and editorial decisions of media companies, illustrated most recently in the media’s coverage of the build-up to the war in Iraq and the debate over weapons of mass destruction. By allowing media companies free rein to grow ever larger without facing public scrutiny, the media ceases to play its cherished role of independent watchdog, severely inhibiting the public’s ability to play a meaningful role in our political system.
We already have evidence of the consequences of consolidation. In 1996, Congress eliminated rules limiting the size of companies owning radio stations. Massive consolidation ensued, devastating radio’s diversity of opinion, local programming, and competition. In 1995, Clear Channel owned 25 radio stations; it now owns over 1200. Clear Channel reaches over 100 million people (43 percent of all radio listeners), earning 45 percent of industry revenues. Playlists have become homogenized from city to city, allowing fewer outlets for independent music and viewpoints, evidenced most famously by the boycott of the Dixie Chicks by radio stations in response to the group’s critical comments about President Bush. As progressive FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said, "Clear Channelization of the rest of the American media will harm our country."
The FCC’s reluctance to regulate effectively may stem in large part from its close connections to industry. Despite its historic mission to protect the public interest and serve as an honest broker between the public and industry, the agency has dedicated itself to ensuring corporate interest above all else. Scores of agency officials have walked through the "revolving door," going from government to industry or vice versa. Top FCC officials, including the agency’s chief of staff, chiefs of important bureaus within the agency, and senior legal advisers to commissioners have all come from industry, or soon taken industry jobs after leaving government service.
The influence of private interests at the FCC is particularly galling in our current era of technological innovation, which once promised to increase democratization and diversity among the media, as well as spurring competition. Instead, public commodities like the wireless spectrum and internet access have become battlegrounds for a few major media companies, where profits are paramount, not preserving the public interest. The FCC’s drive to allow consolidation has restricted, not enhanced, competition.
Despite the best efforts of our public officials to distract us with campaigns against high-profile celebrities, progressives must ensure the conversation not turn away from the real indecency — increasing private control of the media at the expense of the public good.
Rajeev Goyle is a senior domestic policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.