FCC Proposes Greater Media Consolidation

FCC Proposes Greater Media Consolidation

by Stephen Lendman

On October 17, FCC chairman Kevin Martin proposed
lifting the 1975 media cross-ownership rule that
forbids a company from owning a newspaper and
television or radio station in the same city even
though giant conglomerates like Rupert Murdock’s News
Corp. and the (Chicago) Tribune Company already do. On
November 13, he expanded on his earlier plan claiming
changes will only allow cross ownership “in the
largest markets where there exists competition and
numerous voices.”

That’s not how Free Press.net’s policy director, Ben
Scott, sees it in his statement on the same day
saying: “Chairman Martin’s lofty rhetoric talks about
saving American newspapers and ensuring a diversity of
voices. But the devil is in the details. His new rules
appear to be corporate welfare for the (media giants)
in the biggest cities (and) most worrying….the
proposed rules appear to contain a giant loophole that
could open the back door to runaway media
consolidation in nearly every market (in) another
massive giveaway to Big Media.”

If the ban is ended, that’s what will happen, and the
trend author and journalist Ben Bagdikian documented
since 1983 will continue unimpeded. He did it in six
editions of his landmark book, “The Media Monopoly,”
plus his newest 2004 update titled, “The New Media
Monopoly.”

Since 1983, the number of corporations owning most
newspapers, magazines, book publishers, recorded
music, movie studios, television and radio stations
have shrunk from 50 to five “global-dimension firms,
operating with many of the characteristics of a
cartel” - Time-Warner, Disney, News Corp., Viacom and
Bertelsmann AG based in Germany. Also large and
dominant are companies like cable giant Comcast and
corporate behemoth GE with its NBC television and
radio operations.

When The Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, its
supporters claimed it would increase competition,
lower prices, improve service, and according to
Vice-President Al Gore be an “early Christmas present
for the consumer.” Point of fact - it wasn’t passed
for the consumer or to discipline the market. It had
many anti-consumer provisions in it that included
giving media and telecom giants the right to
consolidate further through mergers and acquisitions.

Limits on TV station ownership were raised to let
broadcast giants own twice as many local stations as
before. For radio, it was even sweeter with all
national limits on station ownership removed, and on
the local level one company henceforth could own up to
eight stations in a major market. In smaller ones, two
companies could own them all. The bill also consigned
new digital television broadcast spectrum space to
current TV station owners only and let cable companies
increase their local monopoly positions. The clear
winners from this bill were the media and telecom
giants. As always, consumers lost out, and FCC
chairman Martin wants to make it worse by his October
17 proposal to end the cross-ownership ban.

Further consolidation means less diversity when
there’s already precious little. That’s anathema to a
healthy democracy that depends on the free marketplace
of ideas that’s greatly eroded since the 1980s. In
2003, the Michael Powell-run FCC tried to weaken it
further through a number of proposed changes Congress
blocked in the wake of strong public opposition to
them. That even aroused former CNN owner Ted Turner to
say a further rule relaxation would “stifle debate
(and) inhibit new ideas.” The Media Access Project
(MAP) also won a Third Circuit Court June, 2004
decision in the Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC case
that ruled for diversity and democracy over greater
media consolidation and ordered the FCC to reconsider
its ill-advised ownership rules changes Powell’s FCC
proposed that included:

—ending the cross-ownership ban under consideration
now that prohibits a company from owning a newspaper
and TV or radio station in the same city;

—eliminating the previous ban on radio/TV
cross-ownership and replacing both types with a single
set of cross-media limits;

—a concocted “diversity index” to determine
cross-media limits. It was based on assigning varying
weights to the various media to determine if markets
retained enough diversity. It would only consider
ownership limits if by its formula there wasn’t
enough. It was pure deception because in major markets
like New York the FCC gave equal or greater weighting
to a community college radio station than the New York
Times and local ABC affiliates;

—cross-ownership limits only in smaller markets. In
ones with eight or more TV stations, proposed rules
changes would have no cross-ownership newspaper, TV
and radio station restrictions;

—a company would be able to own two TV and six radio
stations in the same market if at least 20
“independently owned media voices” remained after a
merger. If only 10 remained, ownership would be
limited to two TV and four radio stations;

—redefining National Market Share to mean the total
number of households company TV stations reach and
raising the allowable ownership ceiling from 35% to
45%. A 39% compromise was reached to allow News Corp.
and Viacom to keep all their stations that already
exceeded the allowable limit.

In spite of mass public opposition today, FCC Chairman
Martin wants to end limits on media ownership in a
plan to take effect in weeks or sooner if not stopped.
He’s been allowing public comments on the proposal
since mid-November with a Republican three to two
majority FCC vote planned for December 18. His move is
the latest effort to end 1940s restrictions the New
York Times said (in February, 2002) were “rooted in
the fears of the European experience at the time that
the television industry in the United States could
come to be dominated by a few powerful interests.”
Ownership limits were gradually eased thereafter, and
mergers and acquisitions followed.

By the mid-1980s, no network was allowed to control
local media that reached over a fourth of the nation’s
households, nor could it own more than 12 stations.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 raised the limit to
35% that made possible almost 200 TV station mergers
and acquisitions that followed.

It was no different for the three giant radio
broadcasters. They were able to acquire the great
majority of the 2000 stations bought between 1996 and
2000, after which Clear Channel Communications bought
AMFM Radio to become the nation’s largest radio
broadcaster with over 900 stations (plus its 19 TV
stations) that combined with its international
holdings makes it the largest one in the world.

Regulatory easing had a devastating effect on local
diversity according to Free Press.net Research
Director S. Derek Turner. In testimony before the
Senate Commerce Committee on October 23 he said:
“Congress must send a message to the FCC to stop its
rush toward more consolidation. Ownership rules exist
for a reason: to increase diversity and localism,
which in turn produces more diverse speech, more
choice for listeners, and more owners who are
responsive to their local communities.”

Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and
Consumers Union voiced their opposition to proposed
changes by filing thousands of pages of comments
October 22 against the FCC plan. Their research shows
ownership limits enhance local news quantity and
quality. It refutes FCC’s “inconsistent, incompetent
and incoherent” opposite claims case and fraudulent
press release in mid-November that its proposal was
just a “minor loosening of the (cross-ownership)
ban….in (only) the very largest markets and subject
to certain criteria and limitations.” Left out of its
comment was the fine print Free Press exposed below on
November 26 in 10 facts:

(1) “Martin’s proposal (hides) corporate welfare for
Big Media (that will) unleash a buying spree in the
top 20 (media) markets.”

(2) “Loopholes (through waivers) open the door to
cross-ownership” anywhere.

(3) “Loopholes allow newspapers to own TV stations of
any size (and) top-rated stations to (buy) major
newspapers.”

(4) “FCC history shows weak standards won’t protect
the public (and) the FCC hasn’t denied any temporary
waiver request in years.”

(5) “Cross-ownership doesn’t create more local news”
as dominant companies crowd out competition.

(6) “Cross-ownership won’t solve newspapers’ financial
woes” that are greatly exaggerated.

(7) “The Internet is an opportunity, not a death
sentence,” and media consolidation won’t help
traditional media’s financial problems.

(8) “Martin’s plan would harm minority media owners”
by making them takeover targets.

(9) “A broken and corrupt process creates bad
policies” that are characterized by FCC’s secrecy and
rush to change media ownership rules for the media
barons it supports.

(10) “The public doesn’t want more media
consolidation” expressed by 99% of comments to FCC
opposing letting media giants “swallow up more local
media.”

The Prometheus Radio Project (dedicated to a “free,
diverse, and democratic media”) also expressed its
concern about Chairman Martin’s plan to weaken rules
to allow “unchecked corporate power in media” and the
inadequate timeline he set for public comments.
Prometheus also wants scheduled proceedings delayed
until the Localism Task Force (established in 2003 to
strengthen broadcasting localism) integrates the
results of its work into FCC’s ownership proposals. It
stresses that corporations don’t own the airwaves.
They belong to the public and “setting a reasonable
set of limitations on ownership (won’t burden) those
(given) the privilege (to) broadcast signals for the
public benefit.” Prometheus wants FCC to retain
current ownership rules and devote its efforts to
establish more low power radio licenses, preserve net
neutrality, expand cable access, better use unlicensed
spectrum and promote diversity and localism.

The Senate Commerce Committee is now examining
Martin’s proposal, and Senator Byron Dorgan predicted
it would be greeted by “a firestorm of protest” as in
2003. Other senators voicing concern include
Republican Trent Lott and Democrat presidential
candidate Barack Obama who called “the proposed
timeline and process….irresponsible” and added “the
Commission has failed to further the goals of
diversity in the media and promote localism, and as a
result, it is in no position to justify allowing for
increased consolidation of the market.” Dorgan and
Lott began work on a bipartisan bill to prevent FCC
from instituting new media consolidation rules. Dorgan
predicted on October 24 he’s “confident any plan to
allow additional concentration of media ownership will
be rejected” by Congress.

He and Lott also said they’d seek support in Congress
for a “resolution of disapproval” to overturn the FCC
rule if it’s passed. It’s a rare move that was only
once before used in 2003 when the Powell-led FCC tried
to change the rules. To take effect, it would have to
pass both Houses by two-thirds margins because George
Bush is certain to veto it. Presidential vetos are
rarely overridden, but that pattern may not hold up
this time.

Support is building in Congress to stop gutting media
ownership rules. On October 24, over 40 House members
sent a letter to Chairman Martin to “resolve
significant shortcomings in (FCC’s) plan regarding
accountability, transparency, and scientific
integrity” in its current proposal. Of particular
concern were a lack of public hearings, the dismal
state of female and minority media ownership, and
FCC’s tainted research to make its case for changing
the rules. Senators Nelson and Snowe also were
critical. They called media consolidation “a critical
issue (that) requires a completely transparent
process” and urged Martin to complete his proceedings
on localism and minority ownership before addressing
rules changes. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman
Inouye agrees and intends to hold hearings on media
consolidation, diversity and ownership to address
these vital issues.

New developments on November 8 came from a Senate
Commerce Committee hearing at which Senators Dorgan
and Lott said they’d introduce legislation to quash
the FCC’s rush to gut current rules. The bipartisan
bill with many co-sponsors is called the “Media
Ownership Act of 2007.” The Senate Commerce Committee
unanimously passed it on December 4, and it now goes
before the full Senate. If it becomes law, it will
require the FCC to publish any proposed rule changes
in the Federal Register 90 days prior to a vote, give
the public 60 days to comment and another 30 days for
reply comments. If the FCC fails to do this, the bill
voids any changes it approves. It also directs the FCC
to conduct a separate proceeding on localism and
create an independent minority and female ownership
task force ahead of any efforts to change the rules.

This development, growing public opposition and calls
for the FCC to complete its long-running study of how
broadcasters serve local communities should have
delayed the December 18 vote Chairman Martin wants.
Instead, it’s now on the agenda to be ruled on
according to a December 12 FCC release that puts the
agency on a collision course with key lawmakers in
Congress who want more time to study the issue and
greater public input. Martin is also defying A Media
and Democracy Coalition poll released October 31 that
showed 70% of respondents opposed media consolidation,
and 57% said owning a newspaper and TV station in the
same market should be illegal.

Then there’s the StopBigMedia.com Coalition. It’s made
up of grassroots “groups across the spectrum that
agree to a set of principles and have banded together
to stop the FCC from allowing a handful of giant
corporations to dominate America’s media system.” It’s
principles state:

—democracy depends on a “free and vibrant media full
of diverse, local and competing voices;”

—media ownership consolidation “has dangerously
reduced the number of (media) voices (that) seek to
minimize competition” and promote profits over the
public interest;

—Congress and the FCC must ensure that our media
system is “an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in
which truth will prevail.”

We have a long way to go to achieve these goals, but
the StopBigMedia.com Coalition is committed to doing
it. Its bottom line: “If we want better media, we need
better media policies” that are made by Congress and
FCC. But they won’t come out of this FCC that’s
totally beholden to the media giants.

It shows in its practices and reports of its biased
research, false claims, and a long history of ignoring
the public interest. That has growing numbers on
Capitol Hill saying FCC failed to make a case for
further consolidation. It now remains to be seen if
Congress and the courts will back the public interest
the way they did in 2003.

Not if the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page view
prevails as it weighed in on this issue prominently on
October 25. It accused Senators Dorgan and Lott of
“shilling for local broadcasters who don’t want the
competition,” when, in fact, that’s exactly what they
want. It also attacked the “political left’s
ideological paranoia (over) corporate media ownership”
saying it has “no such objection to the left’s
operational control of National Public Radio or PBS”
when, in fact, both broadcasters are corporate America
tools and never met a US-led war they didn’t love and
support.

All the Journal can do is shill for the media giants
and note how it’s “long favored letting the free
market determine the size of a company.” It further
cites media concentration as a fait accompli new
technologies will allow to continue. By Journal logic
(and the Martin FCC): “This has led not to monopolies
but to a media landscape that is more diverse than
ever (with) more news and entertainment options.”
Media theorist Neil Postman had a different view. He
once called Americans the most over-entertained,
under-informed people in the world and wrote about it
in books like “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Further
media consolidation guarantees much more of the same
with the public, as always, the loser.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and
listen to The Steve Lendman News and Information Hour
on TheMicroEffect.com Mondays at noon US central time.


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