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May 30, 2003

Don't Kill The Messenger, Just Buy Him Out

Proposed FCC Rule Changes Threaten American Democracy
by Jamie Court
 
The following commentary was published in the San Diego Union Tribune on May 30th, 2003:

The Federal Communications Commission vote scheduled Monday on whether to allow greater media consolidation is about more than just erasing media ownership rules that date to the 1940s.

If FCC Chairman Michael Powell has his way, a media company could own up to three television stations in a single city, a newspaper and radio stations there, and control television stations with nearly half the national audience.

The decision threatens to be a fatal blow to the Founding Father's notion of the free press as a servant of the public interest rather than the commercial interest.

The Founders who participated in the debate about the Constitution universally saw the liberty of the press as "the sacred palladium of public liberty," as Arthur Lee, the Continental Congress Delegate from Virginia who wrote under the pen name of "Cinncinnatus," put it.

"As long as the liberty of the press continues unviolated, and the people have the right of expressing and publishing their sentiments upon every public measure, it is next to impossible to enslave a free nation," wrote Philadelphian Samuel Bryan, pen-named "Centinel."

Such a perspective was ingrained in federal broadcasting law, which has required broadcasters to operate in the public interest. After all, the public owns the air waves broadcasters lease rent free, despite being valued at more than $100 billion.

Nonetheless, public interest standards in the media have steadily evaporated over the last 20 years.

As a condition of license, for example, the Fairness Doctrine required that television stations and broadcasters provide coverage of controversial community issues and balanced views about them. The rule, in effect since 1949, was eliminated in the late 1980s.

"Free" airtime for public interest advocates to educate the public on issues simply no longer exists. The corporations that lobbied to invalidate the Fairness Doctrine wanted to reclaim that valuable airtime for paying customers.

Now Powell, who was appointed by President Bush, has declared dead on arrival the "public interest" standard that has governed approval of media actions in the past, claiming it "is about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency and ask it to make meaningful judgments."

The half-dozen corporations that control the American mass media clearly believe the corporate owners of the media have the ultimate say about how free the press is.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Viacom chief Mel Karmazian, owner of CBS, argued that only removing limits on his network acquiring more media outlets would save access to quality media, communications and journalism. "We need to see that 35 percent arbitrary cap [on network acquisition of stations] removed so that we can make money on our TV stations, so we can bid for programming on free, over-the-air broadcasting."

At the same Senate hearing, Jack Fuller of the Tribune Company, echoed Karmazian's sentiment. This was a convenient policy stand for his corporation, which had acquired newspapers in three markets where the Tribune already owned television stations, including the Los Angeles Times in what is essentially a one-paper town.

"We're not in a period of concentration," Fuller insisted. "We're in a period of radical fragmentation. And what you're seeing is serious journalistic organizations trying to find ways to deal with that so they can continue to support serious journalism for their communities."

In other words, without unfettered corporate commerce, broadcasters cannot afford high quality, community journalism. Without corporations freer to consolidate their power, there will be no free press.

The free press is supposed to serve the public interest in informing. With fewer and fewer broadcasters, however,the newsgathering resources, the information the public receives, and the diversity of voices will shrink.

Media companies argue that restriction of information and viewpoints in America is impossible when individuals have access to hundreds of cable channels and the Internet. When there are so many choices overall, a shrinkage of vital information, public debate and dissenting voices about critical societal changes is hard to fathom.

The greatest evidence that the corporate media says too little to the public about stories that are not in the commercial interest of the media corporation is the lack of public understanding of media consolidation itself.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Bagdikian reported, "For the first time in U.S. history, the country's most widespread news, commentary and daily entertainment are controlled by six firms that are the among the world's largest corporations, two of them foreign."

His research showed that the Big Six - General Electric, Disney, Bertelsmann, Viacom, AOL Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp - had more annual revenue than the next 20 media companies combined.

And have the major television news shows even debated the coming FCC vote and its ramifications?

The growing commercial emphasis in entertainment, news and information during the last few decades has shifted the content and flow of information and debate in American society from "telling" to "selling."

The media corporations say that's what the public hungers for - shows that feature contestants eating live cockroaches. Yet this explanation belies the dramatic increase in recent years in listeners of public broadcasting, which does a far better job of telling, even if it is talking mainly to the moneyed class that supports it.

With the National Rifle Association and liberal groups like Common Cause opposed to the FCC changes, Monday's vote is of momentous importance to our democratic freedoms. The question is how many television-watching Americans will even hear enough about it to understand its significance.
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Jamie Court is author of "Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom And What To Do About It" (Tarcher/Putnam) http://www.corporateering.org



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