Regulation is to the Bush administration what frugality is to George Steinbrenner. Conservative distaste for government oversight is evident throughout the current federal government. But among its most dramatic manifestations lies in the decline of the Federal Communications Commission as a true regulatory body, empowered to protect the public’s interest in public airwaves.
The FCC’s duties, or neglect thereof, rarely enjoy much discussion in the mainstream media, as evidenced by the recent hubbub over John McCain and Vicki Iseman: at the heart of the issue isn’t romance, but lobbying. Specifically, McCain allegedly lobbied the FCC to approve the sale of a television station to a major financial contributor. The issue beneath the screaming headlines and campaign spin is really how corporations use their financial influence to control media ownership.
In recent years, and particularly since 2000, big media has had their way, like some mustachioed cartoon villain, and its aide-de-camp has almost always been the FCC. The agency has repeatedly pursued relaxed ownership rules, declined to investigate the involvement of telecommunications companies in warrantless wiretapping, and moved to protect and enhance the interests of large media conglomerates.
The rush toward media deregulation was already afoot when George W. Bush took office in January 2001. Ownership caps on radio stations were removed in 1996 following a bitter battle in Congress that was never once mentioned on the nightly news. (In fact, the only times the words "Telecommunications Act of 1996" were ever mentioned on broadcast TV were once by Ted Koppel and once by Lisa Simpson. I swear I’m not making this up).
The act led to a dramatic reduction in the number of station owners-there are 30 percent fewer radio stations now than in 1996, and one company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200.
President Bush’s handpicked FCC chair, Michael Powell, (son of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell), attempted to push media consolidation even further. The commission under Powell tried to loosen media ownership rules at the local and national levels, proposing changes that would, for example, allow one company to own all the outlets in a particular media market.
These cross-ownership rule changes were rejected by a federal court in 2003, following months of public outcry and lawsuits. But the Bush administration has hardly given up. As detailed in Think Again last fall, Powell’s successor, Kevin Martin, re-wrote the rule changes in an attempt to avoid further legal challenges. But they still had essentially the same purpose-an extreme relaxation of media ownership rules. This time, the changes passed and are on their way to becoming law, although legal challenges again loom.
In addition to its push for relaxed ownership limits, the Commission has ruthlessly avoided any transparency or public input. They suppressed major reports that showed media consolidation harmed ownership diversity, earning the FCC a congressional rebuke. The now public reports demonstrate dramatic decreases not only in the number of media owners, but also in the amount of local news in areas subject to consolidation.
The commission under both Powell and Martin also minimized the required public input for rule changes-Powell, for example, held only one meeting, and Martin announced his public hearings very shortly before they actually happened, giving opposition groups little time to mobilize.
The FCC made another major move in favor of big media in 2006, one perhaps related to the ongoing scandal involving the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping. Remember that the telecommunications companies allegedly involved are regulated by the FCC and hence, their actions fall under its jurisdiction. But despite the potential for law-breaking activities, the FCC declined to initiate any investigations. As Rep. Ed Markey, a telecommunications expert, put it, "The FCC, which oversees the protection of consumer privacy under the Communications Act of 1934, has taken a pass at investigating what is estimated to be the nation’s largest violation of consumer privacy ever to occur."
Aside from the NSA wiretapping issue, the telecoms have other business in front of the commission: net neutrality. The FCC must decide to what extent it will enforce net neutrality rules, which currently prevent telecoms from making certain websites more accessible to web traffic than others. Any steps away from that enforcement forever undermine the Internet as a fairly distributed resource for all our democratic concerns.
In addition to enforcing the administration’s ideological bias toward big business, the FCC has also been an outlet for the conservative social agenda. Since 2000, the FCC has aggressively punished perceived indecency over public airwaves, as made famous by the astronomical fines leveled after Janet Jackson’s "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl in 2004. That year, there were more fines issued for "broadcast indecency" than in the 10 previous years combined.
Such aggressive punishment of indecency-as defined by the conservatives running the commission-"throws out decades of free-speech law," notes the New York Times‘ Adam Cohen. "The danger it poses to the culture is real." What’s more, it is done in response to a phony-baloney lobbying campaign. For instance, during the year 2003, according to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints-99.8 percent-were filed by L. Brent Bozell III’s Parents’ Television Council, a notoriously conservative group, often by people who admitted to having never seen the allegedly offensive program in question.
Anyone interested in free airwaves that operate in the public interest has their work cut out for them in reversing these damaging policies. Ownership rules need to be revisited, as do obscenity regulations, to bring rationality to the system. And the FCC needs to take a more active oversight role, especially when it comes to telecommunications companies.
But the first step to addressing media consolidation and deregulation is a robust public discussion. None of this nonsense would likely survive the light of day were it only in the media’s interest to cover it.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at 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 http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America will be released this month.
George Zornick is a New York based writer.