Turning the Tide

It’s time to fight the Enronization of the media.

BY Robert McChesney and John Nichols

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What would happen if multinational media corporations were free to conglomerate and monopolize with even less regulation than Enron faced in the energy sector? Would they avoid getting too big because of the threat to democratic discourse? Or would they choose to maximize profits by crossing every boundary of communications technology to dominate what citizens see, hear and think?

Anyone who has witnessed the patterns of media conglomeration that followed deregulation of radio ownership after enactment of the 1996 Telecommunications Act already knows the answer to that question: The media companies will go for the market dominance that assures untold profits. With a go-ahead from a federal judge and preparations underway at the deregulation-happy Federal Communications Commission to remove the last threads of the regulatory safety net, some of the most powerful corporations in the world are planning to build the sort of monopolies imagined by the authors of dystopian novels.

The essential underpinnings of media reform are threatened as never before. Don’t get us wrong: We are not suggesting that things are good now; and our concerns are not predicated upon some longing for a mythological “Golden Age” when media were good. American media have always been troublesome, and this country desperately needs policies that increase the size and power of the nonprofit and non-commercial media sector, as well as rules limiting hyper-commercialism. But if the media are permitted to consolidate in the manner now imminent, the prospects for any alternative media policies will decline precipitously. That’s why this is everyone’s fight.

On February 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia nullified a pair of long-standing government regulations that had limited the size of media companies that use the public airwaves. One rule prevented the same company from owning TV stations and cable franchises in the same market. The other rule limited the number of TV stations a single company could own.

The court sent the TV station ownership rule to the FCC for review, which is great news for the media corporations. Even before the appeals court ruling, FCC Chairman Michael Powell was working to relax or eliminate these and other limits on media monopoly—including the last barriers to a single corporation gaining dominance of print, broadcast and cable communications in a single market. Powell says he is determined to enact his “reforms” as quickly as possible.

This deregulation, should it proceed, will result in an explosion of corporate deal-making that will make the past decade of unprecedented media conglomeration look like a Wednesday-night bingo game at the local old-folks home. For the first time, media giants that control TV station empires—Disney, News Corp., Viacom, General Electric—would be able to merge with or acquire media empires built on cable franchises, such as AOL Time Warner and AT&T-Comcast. As Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff, puts it, the ruling “allows for a powerful new entity we have never seen before—something that combines both cable and broadcasting assets.”

To see where the courts and the FCC are leading us, consider what transpired following a similar deregulation of the radio sector in 1996. Radio is now dominated by a handful of large firms, like Clear Channel and Viacom, that have standardized content, zeroed out local voices and revved up commercialism. Imagine a similar scenario playing out in local television markets, toss in an expected move to allow media corporations to own stations in every market in the nation, and you have a recipe for what Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union calls an “earth-shattering” shift in media ownership patterns. He says, “The end result could be the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen.”

And the worst is yet to come. If the FCC eliminates the ban on corporations owning TV stations and newspapers in the same market, newspaper chains—Gannett, Knight-Ridder, the New York Times Co., Tribune Co. and others—will be hooking up with the aforementioned giants faster than you can say: “one source of news.” The trade press is filled with stories projecting possible mega-deals. A Wall Street media industry analyst quips that the prospect of deregulation says to the media conglomerates: “Gentlemen, start your engines.”

None of this is especially surprising. Historically, broadcast policy decisions like these are made behind closed doors, where powerful lobbyists pick their teeth with politicians’ spines. Already a good 10 times larger than the largest media firms of the late ’80s, today’s media conglomerates see the federal court ruling in their favor as the clearest victory in their three-pronged grab for ownership deregulation—a push that is taking place in the courts, on Capitol Hill and at the FCC. Years of lavish campaign contributions, massive spending on lobbyists, and revolving-door jobs for federal bureaucrats to work on behalf of the conglomerates they once regulated have given media policy-making a stench familiar to those who have followed the Enron scandal. And after 20 years of rabidly pro-business appointments by Republican and Democratic presidents, the federal courts are so in the sway of the neoliberal fantasy that they can no longer be expected to step on the brakes.

But the story is not over. The tightening corporate noose around the neck of our media system is indefensible by any known theory of liberal democracy. As the public becomes aware of these monopolies and deregulations, the promise of widespread opposition across the political spectrum will be realized. That is why corporate lobbies work so hard to keep deliberations over deregulation behind closed doors. But the February appeals court ruling put the issue on the front-pages of newspapers, and even drew a New York Times editorial calling for a congressional intervention.

The one positive component of the court ruling was its rejection of a claim by big media that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that, even as Michael Powell seeks to destroy the last limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful members, such as Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-South Carolina) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) are interested in doing just that. And Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has already introduced legislation demanding that the FCC maintain current ownership guidelines and that Congress hold major hearings to generate democratic media ownership rules for the digital era. “These media companies have been so greedy and so irresponsible that people across the country are saying: We’ve got to do something about them,” Sanders says. “The good news is that Congress can do something. We have the authority to develop regulations to limit monopolies.”

Sanders is the first to admit, however, that congressional action will come only with a push from the people. And there are signs that the people are beginning to push. A rally will take place outside FCC headquarters in Washington on March 22 to protest Powell’s corrupt deregulation policies. Organized by Philadelphia-based Media Tank and the Prometheus Radio Project, and sponsored by scores of groups and individuals, the demonstration looks to be the clearest signal yet of an upsurge of political organizing around media policy issues. (For information, see www.mediatank.org.)

All progressive groups must recognize that, if our media system continues on its present course, their ideas and concerns will be “disappeared” from local media—as they already have been from national media. These groups must forge the backbone of a media reform organization that is capable of harnessing the anger at the Enronization of our media system. As mighty as corporate media have become in recent decades, the popular will for a diverse and democratic media can and must be mightier still.


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John Nichols is The Nation's Washington D.C. correspondent and the associate editor for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc. His articles have appeared in many newspapers.

Robert W. McChesney is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former editor of Monthly Review. He is the author of many books, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He hosts Media Matters on WILL-AM radio.

McChesney and Nichols have co-authored the books It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press) and, most recently, The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation's media-reform network.

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