Features » January 9, 2013
Enemy of Rupert
An interview with independent media’s white knight, Craig Aaron
A diverse ownership isn’t guaranteed to do better news coverage, but diverse ownership is much more likely to serve communities better and cover a range of viewpoints.
If Craig Aaron ever wrote an epitaph about his career as a news-loving media reformist, it might read “Enemy of Rupert Murdoch.” Aaron, a former managing editor at In These Times, is the current CEO of Free Press, one of the loudest voices for media reform in Washington, D.C. What does he do there? Sue the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for giving more power to big media at the expense of ownership diversity. And as the FCC considers carving up more of the media landscape and handing it to the likes of Murdoch, Aaron is getting ready for round three. Ding!
Despite the fact that President Barack Obama came out against consolidation of big media over the years, including during his time as senator, his FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, is taking up the mantle of consolidation once again. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell tried it, and failed. His successor Kevin Martin tried, failed again. And among the reasons for those failures were Craig Aaron, Free Press and the like-minded groups that have successfully convinced at least two federal courts that the FCC could not allow the industry to consolidate until it came up with a report on diversity of ownership.
The FCC released a survey in November and the news wasn’t good. It found that only 7 percent of television stations were owned by women and less than 4 percent by people of color. You would be hard-pressed to find any other industry that has such a woeful representation of diversity. No wonder all the news channels are the same.
What’s the latest on the FCC’s consolidation efforts?
Oddly, at the tail end of the Obama administration’s first term, the FCC is in a big rush to get rid of long-standing media ownership rules. Right now, one company is not allowed to own both a daily newspaper or a broadcast outlet in a given city or town. But if the FCC chairman gets his way, you could see that change—and all of a sudden the doors could be opened to one company owning up to eight radio stations, two television stations, the daily newspaper and even your local internet service provider all in one community.
We think that is too much media power in too few hands. Yet the FCC, despite really doing nothing for the last four years related to media ownership—except approving a massive merger of Comcast and NBC—all of a sudden, right before Christmas, seems in a hurry to do this giveaway. And the question is, who benefits?
The answer is, companies like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. For example, right now Murdoch could not buy the Chicago Tribune or the Los Angeles Times without selling off some other properties. If these rules are lifted, the Murdochs of the world will be able to swallow even more local media.
Who is lobbying Chairman Genachowski to move forward with this?
It certainly appears that the usual big corporations—News Corp, the Tribune Company—are interested. Although you’re not seeing the same kind of push in public from those companies that you’ve seen in the past. Murdoch wants to expand the newspaper side of his empire. But I think the broadcasters are always looking to further weaken or loosen these regulations. Still, it’s very puzzling that the FCC is making this one of the first things they are doing after Obama’s re-election.
Do you think Murdoch still has sway in Washington or is his star waning?
You would think that people in Washington would be running away from Murdoch, and yet he is lining up for these big favors. News Corp has always had a lot of sway at the FCC. When Reed Hundt was the chairman of the FCC, Murdoch’s chief in-house lobbyist pulled him aside and told him the only job he would be able to get in this town after his term was dog catcher if he didn’t do what Murdoch wanted. He still has a lot of power—look at Fox News—even with the damage done by the controversies abroad.
Courts have said three times that there can be no consolidation until the FCC studies how that affects the diversity of ownership. They did a survey of the diversity of media owners. Is that enough?
It’s not enough because you can’t just commission a study that shows you the numbers of who owns what in this country. You have to analyze the situation and the impact of any proposed rule changes—before they take effect. What do those numbers mean when you have one of the most important industries in the country totally unrepresentative of the country as a whole? The courts haven’t let the FCC ignore this. They won’t this time.
Is Free Press prepared to sue the FCC a third time to stop this?
Oh, absolutely. You know ,all of this goes back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Then you get the years of George W. Bush, and the doors swing open to consolidation. We’re at a point now where a company like Sinclair Broad- casting is about to own three TV stations in a media market like Baltimore. You want to give them even more? You think they should also be able to buy the Baltimore Sun? I don’t.
So, the last time we sued the FCC was in 2007, and the federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled again in 2011 that the FCC had ignored public input and failed to study diversity. So they threw out the rules and sent them back to the FCC.
Despite the FCC losing in court repeatedly, they’re at it again. And they intend to do this without facing the public at all. Even the Republicans conducted at least seven public hearings across the country with the full commission—and at every stop, 99% of the public were against consolidation.
It’s hard to believe Obama would be following the Bush administration on this, especially considering Obama was against these rules in the first place.
News junkies aside, do you think the average American cares about ownership diversity at all?
People sure care about who they see on the air and what those stations cover. People absolutely care about that even though they don’t always make the connection to the ownership. People are increasingly dissatisfied with the mainstream media. They complain in many cities how it is no longer connected to their lives. You hear that complaint all the time. Everywhere I go, people tell me their local news must be the worst in the country. It’s not the worst; it’s just the same. That has everything to do with ownership.
What will further mergers in this business mean to news consumers?
It means the same cookie-cutter content, on the same severely limited subject matter, will only accelerate. People want to know about corruption at city hall, for example; they are always going to be interested in that. But these are expensive stories. It is easier and cheaper to do the fire and crime stories. Consolidation only exacerbates that.
A diverse ownership isn’t guaranteed to do better news coverage, but diverse ownership is much more likely to serve communities better and cover a range of viewpoints. The diversity of ownership will play out in the types of news stories you see on the local news and that is where most people still get their news. Consolidation means you have one cameraman, one reporter, feeding content to three stations in the same market and then writing about it for two different websites in the same town.
You have that already.
But it will get worse. Media consolidation is not making news better, is it? Who thinks that? No one thinks that. You used to have news stations rely on the local newspapers for stories, but the local newspaper is shrinking because of consolidation, because of the economy, because of the Internet. Consolidation just exacerbates the problem. We’ve had consolidation, and the situation for media companies did not improve. It has been a disaster.
What’s the feel from Washington media reformists on this?
People in Washington believe it’s a done deal, but I disagree. We all know that big changes are coming in the industry. Someone is going to devise a new way to distribute news. But that change is not coming from these guys. Consolidation of big media does nothing of benefit to the news business and it does nothing to benefit diversity of views and news coverage. The FCC needs to hear about it from the public. Congress needs to hear from people who are against such a giveaway. Let’s not forget that the airwaves are public. They belong to all of us.
This reporting is supported by The Media Consortium.
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A longtime reporter and foreign correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, Kenneth Rapoza is an In These Times columnist who writes about the news business. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation and at Salon.com. He can be reached at [email protected]