Julius Genachowski is not a household name, yet his decisions help shape the news that’s pumped to your inbox, mailbox and TV screen. Genachowski was given the helm of U.S. media policy in 2009 when he was appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission. His stated goal for the FCC is to drive innovation, foster competition and empower media consumers.
Instead, he may be empowering national media giants from Clear Channel to News Corp to get even bigger. Not to innovate, mind you, but to use what they already have and disseminate it cheaply through newly acquired outlets. If you don’t like the same voices, the same style, and the same news to come at you from every corner of the content providing universe, then media consolidation is worrisome.
A statement from Genachowski called for a vote to “streamline and modernize media ownership rules, including eliminating outdated prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross-ownership.” The provisions he’s targeting date back to 1975. The problem is that the FCC has already been legally challenged over such “modernization” attempts by media reform groups such as Free Press. And the FCC lost, three times. Federal courts sided with the public on this one, saying consolidation was off the table until FCC commissioned new studies on media ownership pertaining to women and minorities.
Such studies are supposed to be done every four years or so. The last one was released to the public on November 14 and conducted by the FCC itself. If three years ago the courts said that there would be no consolidation until ownership diversifies, then this report is surely not going to change their minds.
It showed no progress on women or minority ownership from the previous one in 2007 by Duke University professors Arie Beresteanu and Paul Ellickson. (See chart below).
The November study put women ownership of full power broadcast television stations at 6.8 percent, up from 5.6 percent. Racial minorities owned 2.2 percent, unchanged from 2010. For FM radio stations, women own 5.8 percent and racial minorities own 3.5 percent of FM stations.
With the exception of industries such as construction and wholesale warehousing, minorities are less present in media than they are in most industries. According to the Duke study, women run more manufacturing firms than TV stations.
“If necessary, we will take the FCC to court for a third time in four years, and we will win,” says Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, which battled the FCC in 2004, 2007 and 2011. He adds, “Why is the FCC in a rush to get this done all of a sudden? Maybe Murdoch is in a rush. He can wait. The rush is for the FCC to live up to its mandate to promote localism and promote diversity. They need to deal with that first, not when everything else has been given away.”
The agency has not yet scheduled a public hearing or open meetings on consolidation at this time.
In addition to the mandate for four-year assessments, a federal appeals court instructed the FCC to study the impact of any rule changes on ownership diversity before embarking on consolidation.
From a purely legal standpoint, the FCC might not be able to go ahead with consolidation if opposing groups succeed at showcasing just how little progress has been made on the ownership front. But there’s another problem with consolidation that has nothing to do with the number of Oprah Winfreys and Katherine Grahams owning TV and newspapers.
The problem is that it creates less news. Consolidation of ownership means more of the same news spread out through more outlets, creating an illusion of more choices but, in reality, fewer.
For example, in media-diverse Massachusetts, News Corp owns some small local newspapers, such as The Standard Times, a daily in the old Moby Dick town of New Bedford. But it does not own the old, struggling conservative tabloid, the Boston Herald. A private family owns that. If Murdoch were to buy it out, much of the local news on the Fox News affiliate, WFXT would be shared with the Boston Herald. It would probably also be shared with the Standard Times. There would be no innovation other than to connect those two company’s IT departments. The news team would grow smaller as writers for FXT’s Fox 25 and Boston Herald were pressed to produce dual-purpose content.
“Under consolidation, you’ll have broadcast roll-ups between TV stations, newspapers and radio. And what is more likely to happen than not is that you bring together employees doing the same work for two different sets of media and that will lead to job cuts, fewer employees, less coverage and less diversity,” says Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild, which represents over 26,000 workers in print and some in broadcast media.
Lunzer has seen this industry shrink: Back in 1987, the Guild had over 34,400 members. Consolidation will make it worse. It’ll mean even more jettisoning of reporters in favor of celebrity pundits billed as “experts.” It’s easier to build a pundit’s profile when you are beaming him or her onto TV screens across the nation. Why have a staff of ten people covering education, when you can have one household name telling you how the world works instead?
Industry consolidation is only one factor in the opinionization of news, but one thing is certain: If Murdoch owned a newspaper and a TV station in Boston, newsroom staffers would lose their jobs.
The legal hurdle to consolidation remains a tall one. There aren’t many news media moguls left. The hungriest of the holdouts is Rupert Murdoch. But Murdoch’s phone-tapping scandals in the U.K. have hurt him, and as a result, his political caché has dimmed massively since the George W. Bush years. No one in Washington wants to be seen as providing any shelter for Murdoch. The president has no use for him. Murdoch is on his own.
If the FCC decides to go ahead with consolidation, we can expect more of the same: a massive amount of content in the hands of fewer people, regurgitated nationwide to give us the illusion of diversity.
Hopefully, the Free Press and friends can keep the brakes on. The media environment is bad enough as it is, and consolidation by the major players isn’t going to make anything better for journalists or news junkies. Consolidation is one news drama this business can do without.
This reporting is supported by The Media Consortium.