Media concentration at the national level is continuing apace. Case in point: Rupert Murdoch is rapidly adding media outlets to his portfolio, most recently picking up Dow Jones & Co. and The Wall Street Journal all while launching the new Fox Business Channel. Even so, media moguls and the megacorporations they run will soon be free to push this process into overdrive.
Earlier this month, the Bush-appointed, powerful ally of media consolidation Federal Communications Chairman Kevin Martin revived a four-year-old plan to relax media ownership rules at the local level. The plan includes repealing a rule that prevents companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. This rollback would allow one company to virtually control freedom of the press in entire cities, regions, and even states.
If Martin’s plan is successful and local media ownership rules are relaxed, moguls like Australian tabloid king Rupert Murdoch or Chicago businessman and prospective Tribune Company owner Samuel Zell will be able to enter a media market and buy the daily newspaper, the eight biggest radio stations, the big television stations, the alternative newspapers, and virtually any other outlet they choose.
Not only does Martin intend to rewrite the rules; he plans to do it quickly. The New York Times reported that Martin is secretly circulating a timeline to have the rule changed by Christmas. And mandatory public comment sessions are being held with precious little publicity—the most recent public hearing was announced only five days before it took place.
Martin’s motivation appears unarguable. Josh Silver of Free Press asks, “How can you have a hearing on localism without giving the local community time to find out it is happening? Chairman Martin’s actions suggest that he’s never been serious about paying attention to the public. He’s already made up his mind, and is hell-bent on gutting the rules.”
Martin only needs a simple majority of the five-person FCC Commission to acquiesce to the plan, and there are three Republican-appointed members likely to go along. But Congress has stirred on this issue. Sens. Trent Lott (R-MI) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) have pledged to introduce a “resolution of disapproval”—an unusual congressional veto of bad regulations. And Dorgan warned the FCC to “slow down and proceed with caution.”
The alliance between Lott and Dorgan may seem odd, but it’s the same bipartisan effort that went into stopping a similar relaxation of the rules four years ago under then-FCC Chairman Michael “Son of Colin” Powell. The FCC got 3 million complaints—the most it ever received. Groups ranging from the National Organization for Women to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the plan. A U.S. Appeals Court eventually nixed the plan, saying the FCC couldn’t justify the rule change.
So why is this rejected reality show in reruns? Unless Martin is lonely and looking for more mail, one can surmise that he plans to win this one with the regulatory equivalent of a hit-and-run operation, evidence and democratic dissent be damned.
The FCC itself has done two studies that demonstrate the harmful effect of media consolidation—two studies that, incidentally, were never released to the public. One FCC study showed clearly that locally owned stations do more local news. FCC whistleblower Adam Candeub told the Associated Press that higher-ups at the FCC (then under Powell) ordered “every last piece” of the report to be destroyed. “The whole project was just stopped—end of discussion.” A second report demonstrated that the 1996 Telecom Act had diminished the number of radio station owners, even as the actual number of commercial stations increased.
Martin’s plan would be simple: big companies could control what people see, hear, and ultimately think in cities, towns, congressional districts, and states across the country. The plan comes at a particularly dangerous time, as newspaper and television stations across the country are facing increasing financial trouble and going up for sale. And conflicts of interest, increasingly unreported, would multiply, and the public would be the loser in virtually every case.
Continued public noise from Congress, and activism from Free Press’ StopBigMedia.com coalition, may yet again defeat relaxed media consolidation rules. But it won’t happen by itself. If Bush and company have taught us nothing else, it is that democracy requires defending, particularly in the dead of night.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.