One of the final chapters of FCC Chairman Michael Powell's legacy was likely written a few weeks ago during the dustup over "Stolen Honor," the faux anti-Kerry documentary aired by Sinclair Broadcasting. What the public saw was the face of a conservative media corporation that had grown so confident under Powell's Big Media-friendly reign that it no longer felt the need to even make the pretense of abiding by the FCC's fairness rules. Despite the fact that watchdog groups and 38 Democratic congressmen demanded that the FCC consider whether Sinclair's actions violated the Communications Act of 1934, which states that for a broadcaster's license to be renewed, the commission must find that "the public interest, convenience, and necessity would be served thereby," Powell told reporters after the FCC's monthly meeting in Washington, "Don't look to us to block the airing of a program," according to a Reuters report.
There you have it. A millisecond of a bared breast during a Super Bowl halftime show brings the wrath of the FCC down with all the force its fines can muster, while an issue that cuts to the heart of the FCC's mandate – ensuring the fair play of ideas in a democratic society – is effortlessly ignored. Now that conservatives have solidified their power over the federal government until at least the 2006 midterms, Big Media conglomerates will likely continue to push for even more power through consolidation than they have over the past four years of Powell's reign. Although rumors have been swirling for months that Powell would resign from his post in January 2005 regardless of who won the election, precious little evidence suggests that he might be replaced by a new chairman with any particular concern for ensuring the health and vitality of our media marketplace of ideas.
As part of the overall conservative deregulatory agenda, USA Today recently reported that Powell and company will likely attempt to overturn the defeat they were handed in June 2004 when plans to relax cross-ownership rules that barred media companies from owning newspapers and television stations in the same market were declared unconstitutional. The article reveals that "The FCC may be more likely to seek Supreme Court review of an appeals court ruling that asked the agency to better justify media deregulation." It also floats potential candidates for Powell's job should he decide to step down, including former Texas Public Utility Commission Commissioner Rebecca Armendariz Klein and FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin. Given that Klein worked for both Bush presidencies, in Texas and in Washington, and Martin previously served on the 2000 Bush-Cheney transition team, one is hard pressed to predict any rethinking of the commission's fox-in the-henhouse agenda.
A Mediaweek report points out that such court action "could bode ill for license challenges launched last week against two-station combinations in the Asheville, N.c=, and Charleston, S.C., markets that are partly owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, and the newspaper-TV combination owned by Media General in Florence, S.C."
Not all FCC-related news is negative, however. Most notably, the commission is taking seriously the concerns of Congress and the public about a single broadcaster's ability to control a significant portion of a potential television audience. Originally, the FCC sought to raise the ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent, but Congress stepped in and set the cap at 39 percent – which coincidentally meshed with the current reach of stations owned by News Corp. and Viacom. Despite this initial "compromise," the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in a June 2004 ruling, nevertheless disallowed aspects of Powell's plan designed to encourage even more consolidation in media ownership. Had the chairman gotten his way, the FCC would not only have allowed dual ownership of a daily newspaper and a television station in markets with more than four television stations, but would have also completely lifted the cross-ownership ban in markets with nine or more stations. Powell also hoped to see companies given the right to own up to three stations in markets with 18 or more stations, and allow a single company to own two stations in those markets with five or more stations. While these initiatives have been halted, they remain in limbo, like undead zombies ready to re-pounce on the commission now that this nasty business of elections is over with.
And they won't come empty-handed. According to the website opensecrets.org, during the 2004 election cycle, Clear Channel Communications – which currently owns over 200 radio stations nationwide – gave 70 percent of its $670,605 in contributions to conservative candidates, while about 95 percent of Sinclair's $34,000 in contributions has gone to conservatives. But this is small change. A recent report from the Center for Public Integrity finds that the communications industry has spent $1.1 billion lobbying and donating to political campaigns since 1998. This isn't to say that the money only flows in one direction, however. Just last month, Congress passed and sent to the White House a mammoth $137 billion corporate tax bill that was generous to its friends in the media business, with GE alone receiving an $8 billion tax break. As one Goldman Sachs analyst dubbed the law in the L.A. Weekly, it was really a "No Lobbyist Left Behind" Act.
As fewer and fewer companies are allowed to expand their reach even further, the diversity of viewpoints lessens, and the power of just a few companies expands exponentially. Sinclair, again, provides a useful example. The company has set out on a program to cut local news programs in favor of one canned news show broadcast from the company's headquarters in Baltimore, which is beamed to many of its 62 affiliates around the country. The next time a Democrat has the audacity to run for president, he can expect some sort of "Stolen Honor" stunt to be waiting for him in at least 25 percent of major media markets. And woe unto that candidate if he or she should expect the right of reply.
This summer, in protesting the FCC's deregulation scheme, the American people showed that if they yell loud enough, the FCC and members of Congress are forced to listen. Now that further rounds of Big Media consolidation appear to be in our immediate future, one would hope that the people, and not the lobbyists or a small group of free market political appointees, will have the final say in how the media they rely on for information is run. While conservatives rush to extol the virtues of free markets and the deregulation of industries, what they forget is that what may work for the market doesn't necessarily work for democracy. We are citizens as well as consumers and it's up to our regulatory agencies like the FCC to ensure that this becomes a distinction with a genuine difference—at least insofar as our media monoliths are forced to respect it.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.