Inside a shadowy banking system that secretly moves trillions of dollars around the world.
With Bushs new nukes, the world gets more dangerous.
The Failure of Brand USA
Why the Bush administration can't sell America abroad.
Learning from Enron
Will Washington ever get it?
Its time to fight the Enronization of the media.
Colombias generals finally have the war they want, but their countrys people pay the price.
Sharons Lessons in Terror
War crimes tribunal for Cambodia proves elusive.
Polluters rewrite the Clean Water Act.
American tribes take their case against Washington to international courts.
No Fun or Games
Chinese sweatshops churn out toys for the United States.
Neal Horsley: One mean anti-abortionist.
FILM: What Time Is It There?
The Cricket-Loving Marxist Dandy
BOOKS: C.L.R. James: A Life.
The Invisible Band
MUSIC: Gorillaz in our midst.
March 1, 2002
Turning the Tide
Its time to fight the Enronization of the media.
hat 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.
Dont 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. Thats why this is everyones fight.
n 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 monopolyincluding 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
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 empiresDisney, News Corp.,
Viacom, General Electricwould 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 beforesomething 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 chainsGannett,
Knight-Ridder, the New York Times Co., Tribune Co. and otherswill 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, todays media conglomerates
see the federal court ruling in their favor as the clearest victory in their
three-pronged grab for ownership deregulationa 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.
ut 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: Weve 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 Powells 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,
All progressive groups must recognize that, if our media system continues on
its present course, their ideas and concerns will be disappeared
from local mediaas 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.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, forthcoming from Seven Stories Press.