The Big Problem with Even Bigger Media

Chairman Martin At FCC Headquarters- 10/31/07

 

The institution of the press is the central nervous system of democracy. 1

For those of us focused on Iraq, Iran, immigration, the health insurance
crisis, and equal rights for same sex couples, the issue of media consolidation probably doesn’t inspire a passionate call to action.

November 13th, FCC chairman Kevin Martin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, confirming his intention to further relax media ownership rules. You can find a link to a PDF file containing the text of his proposal at this blog.

The announcement comes on the heels of a speedy round of public hearings scheduled in order to wrap the matter up by year’s end. On December 18th the Commission will vote on loosening the broadcast/newspaper
cross-ownership ban. Martin’s rushed timetable leaves a mere nineteen days for public comment.

As it stands, the cross-ownership rule, enacted in 1975 to ensure media diversity, prevents TV and radio broadcasters from owning a newspaper within the same market. Several temporary waivers have been granted for indvidually reviewed cases. For instance, The Tribune Co. has been permitted to acquire stations in several large markets. According to Martin, the proposed rewrite is restricted to the twenty largest media markets in the country.

Tangible Effects:

Weapons of Mass Destruction

It may be difficult to imagine how the complex billion dollar dealings of
massive corporations affect us on a personal, practical level. This is particularly the case since we are largely unaware of most of these transactions.

We all have political issues to contend with that have potentially more immediate personal consequences. There is the common occurrence of going
without health insurance due to employment and financial obstacles, or having to deal with the difficulty of a loved one being deployed to the battle lines.

Griping about the State of The Media may seem whiny and impetuous
in comparison.

However, we must consider the powerful role of communications media in
establishing and controlling a dominant discourse, and the lasting ripples created by the resulting social and cultural effects. Americans watch a
great deal of TV, and the content presented can be immensely
influential to public opinion.

Media coverage can determine how issues that directly impact us are treated in government, by institutions, and in social networks. There is hardly an area or topic that is not determined in some form by its treatment in and through, media. The most direct, and arguably the most
important example, is the news industry.

As we’ve seen in the case of the Iraq war, in the 2000 presidential election, and through coverage of the Katrina aftermath, decisions made by news bureaus may not harm us in a direct or timely fashion. But choices in reporting can clearly have profound effects that touch every citizen. Dictating what information we receive, when we receive it, and how it’s contextualized (or not), is no small charge.

Corporations & Consolidation: Bad News

Newscorp's New Acquisition

Given the corporate structure of media organizations, editorial and other decisions are directly and indirectly governed by parent companies. Like any rational market entity, news corporations protect their interests to stay profitable.

One example is the 1997 conflict at a Fox affiliate in Tampa, Florida, over coverage of the controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Management at WTVT felt pressured to suppress the story due to Fox’s business relationship with Monsanto, the international biotech firm that manufactures rBGH. Two journalists at the station pushed to report on the dubious hormone. They were terminated and allegedly bribed to stay quiet, but instead they brought suit against Fox.

Consolidation of ownership only worsens the effects of corporate tendencies to make compromises in order to save the bottom line. With fewer hands controlling greater numbers of outlets, decisions made at the top out of necessity, will inevitably affect more publications under the growing umbrellas of media conglomerates.

Initially, consolidation boosts profitability, or at least reduces loss. But the long- run economic argument for consolidation isn’t very strong. The rampant media mergers of the last ten years have not prevented the steady decline in profits, audience numbers, and advertising dollars that all purveyors of communications media have experienced, except for internet service providers.

Reducing Diversity:

Drexel University Symposium on Media Consolidation

As illustrated in the Drexel University media consolidation symposium flyer above, concentrating ownership makes the environment hostile for independent organizations. They generally stay the same size, while the competition morphs from multiple opponents who were also competing with each other, into fewer and fewer bound entities with greater resources and shared costs.

Independent entities usually include local and minority broadcasters, who naturally bring a different viewpoint to media markets than a national conglomerate. But these smaller outlets struggle to compete against the handful of behemoths that dominate broadcast and print media. Deregulation of corporate media ownership severely undermines the ability of local and minority- run outlets to stay afloat, narrowing the range of viewpoints expressed and diminishing coverage of local issues.

The widespread deregulation brought on by the 1996 Telecommunications Act is seen as the major reason for the downfall of independent radio.

Radio stations bought out by ClearChannel and other conglomerates broadcast pre-packaged content from a national office. Some stations don’t even have a physical DJ in the cities in which they broadcast. This situation couldn’t possibly foster reporting of local news, or serve the community at all like a local broadcaster.

In addition, consolidation encourages further homogenization of content. Free Press, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America found that in cities where waivers allow cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers, overall diversity and localism in news coverage diminished. This seemed to surprise chairman Martin when the Free Press panelist explained their results, which they arrived at using the FCC’s own data. The rationale behind the findings is that smaller voices left the market, and/or new entrants found the environment too hostile to compete.

Maintaining editorial independence among originating aspects of combined corporations is a purported condition of Martin’s proposal. But this does not protect against homogenization across the broader market if independents are drowned out. In addition, the FCC would need to establish more detailed regulations for this clause because it’s not clear how it would be enforced.


Nobody’s Looking:

Don't Look Behind The Corporate Curtain

It is partly a blanket lack of attention on the part of U.S. consumers that has allowed American media, specifically news media, to reach the sensationalized, homogenous point of near irrelevance at which we find it.

Americans believe we have one of the most liberal, capable news industries in the world. It is a notion that is deeply ingrained in our sense of national identity, beginning with the founding fathers like Madison and Jefferson, who greatly valued the role of communications in a vibrant democracy.

We Americans also love our television. LOVE it.

So it’s difficult to accept when people criticize something that gives us so much pleasure. In addition, the media does not report on how concentrating ownership hurts content. Add stubborn isolationism, and we have a population that is largely unaware of our media’s severe drawbacks, and its sad fall from grace on the international stage.

NewsCorp Financial Research- NYT

There is also a pervasive market mythology that has crept into the values of the news industry and taken full charge, to the extent that even public broadcasting has been dramatically altered. It is blindly assumed that the market will handle any kinks, and that if we see major changes, it’s because we are supposed to. People seem to think this steady downward progression of media and newsgathering is somehow natural, a result of "the market."

There is the idea that If people didn’t want to see garbage, they would simply turn it off. Market forces, and a bit of Adam Smith’s magic dust, would take care of the rest. And consumers would end up with exactly what they want, all executed by remote control.

But that logic requires the intellectually lazy assumption that individual actions coincide with one’s conception of the public interest. Watching a piece of programming is not the same as purchasing ordinary consumer goods. Most tangible goods do not have the power and reach to influence hearts and minds the way that broadcasting has.

The behaviors individuals exhibit when acting for selfish reasons, are not necessarily compatible with what even that same individual knows is required to serve larger social goals. 2

In addition, the market does not precede the media environment, which this overly exuberant capitalism seems to insinuate. The business model adopted for newsgathering in this country is a deliberately designed product of public policy. The notion that the market governs the media in some natural way fosters a feeling of inevitability that erodes our sense of agency about changing the current state of affairs.

We have a convergence of cultural techtonic plates shaping the topography of our attitudes on the media. Nostalgic, outdated notions of a supposedly free press remain dominant. There is a serious lack of information disseminated on the grim realities of our news bureaus, and near secrecy regarding opportunities for citizen involvement. Stubborn market ideology further undermines belief in the possibility of change outside of marketplace voting through consumption patterns.

This results in blissful ignorance for some, embracing Perez Hilton culture. While others resort to apathy. Both conditions discourage giving proper critical attention to the conduct of media industry actors, and the regulators charged with protecting a communications industry once priveleged for its role in sustaining democracy.


Prior Conflicts with the FCC on Ownership:

Prometheus Radio Project
In 2003 under
Chairmain Michael Powell, the FCC attempted to undermine media ownership rules considerably. Commissioners met privately with interested broadcasters 77
times prior to doing so, while meeting with public interest groups on
the matter only 5 times.3

The Commission, including Kevin Martin, voted to abolish the cross-ownership rule altogether. This was overturned by a
Philadelphia appellate court in Prometheus v. FCC, on the grounds that the FCC’s justifications for consolidation were irrational,
arbitrary, and capricious.

The economic analyses indicating a
sufficiently diverse media landscape to warrant such far reaching consolidation, used divisively flawed methodology. Studies also falsely inflated the rates of people using the internet as a primary news source.


Current FCC Proposal:

Chicago Tribune Building

If the Commission approves the current proposed rewrite, a company that owns a newspaper would be permitted to purchase a
TV or radio
station in the same city. However, a newspaper could acquire a TV station only if the station is not within the top four in that market.

In addition, eight independently owned-and-operated media voices would have to remain in the market after the transaction. Furthermore, each originating part of a consolidated entity would be required to maintain its editorial
independence.

Kevin Martin asserts that this proposal is a fair and modest change to an archaic rule that is hampering commerce. He even states that maintaining the ban would actually undermine diversity. To be sure, this proposal is far more measured and subtle than the sweeping changes attempted in 2003.

Commissioner Copps retorts that this proposal is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,
noting the alarmingly short time allowed for public comment. He is also concerned that waivers granted while the ban was in effect, indicate that such exceptions will be made for smaller markets outside of the top twenty once the rule is relaxed.

Public & Government Opposition:

FCC Localism Hearing, Washington D.C. The single public hearing for the 2003 decision was not reported in mainstream media. But three million people spoke out against the issue. It surprised even the commisioners that so many people were engaged in the debate at the time. And despite the impressive response, the pro-consolidation commissioners voted for deregulation.

This time, the FCC held six public hearings. Similar to 2003, the hearings enjoyed very little coverage in mainstream press. And the Commission gave only one week’s notice for the two final meetings. The firestorm of public objection to liberalization of ownership rules made it very clear why the Commission might resist such engagement.

Local independent broadcasters, representatives from minority
organizations, public interest media groups, and good old fashioned concerned
citizens came out in droves to protest the FCC’s actions.

Most meetings had a strong public presence, particularly the September meeting held in Chicago. The two final meetings in Washington, D.C. and Seattle were also well attended, despite having only one week’s notice, and very little publicity in the rush to finish the deliberation process.

Reverend Jesse Jackson Speaks

At the October 31st hearing on localism in Washington, D.C., over 200 individuals rallied and gave testimony. Local political officials, religious leaders, industry representatives, and public interest group officials served on the FCC advisory panel.

To name a few: the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Bob Edwards, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, broadcast owner Jim Goodman, and Kim Grandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

Every panelist gave passionate, convincing reasoning to oppose relaxation, except for Marcellus Alexander, executive vice president for television at the National Association of Broadcasters.

He asserted that profitablity of media entities must be ensured in order to save local entities, and that deregulation does not hurt localism. He showed a lengthy video spotlighting the NBC affiliate in San Diego, and their coverage of the recent fires. This edited montage of coverage from a non- representative week was apparently intended to demonstrate that major broadcasters do adequately cover local issues.

Fellow FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are adamantly against any further liberalization of ownership. Senator Bob Dorgan (D-ND) has also been a highly vocal dissident. Upon hearing of Martin’s surprisingly efficient timetable, he and Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) arranged an emergency meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The committee proposed a bill to slow Martin’s hasty timetable, the Media Consolidation Act of 2007, which would require a 90 day waiting period for any changes to FCC ownership regulations. The Committee will meet again on December 13th. A House panel hearing is also scheduled for December 6th.

We Barked, Now What?

Big Media Bites- 10/31/07

The public’s clear mandate has been acknowledged, and Martin has presented a suggestion that is far more modest than Powell’s prior attempt to abolish the cross-ownership ban.

However, the hurried, surreptitious manner in which Martin has Lose Weight Exercised the process is highly questionable, as if he hopes to sneak by with passing this watered- down version of the 2003 proposal.

Although the proposed alterations are subtle, they do leave the process open to further erosion. And clauses such as the temporary waiver provision are particularly vulnerable to future problems with unwarranted elasticity.

It remains to be seen what the Commission will ultimately decide, and what possible legal repercussions could come of it. Media Advocacy groups have indicated the intent to sue the FCC for failing to abide by court orders issued in the Prometheus case.

Considering
the power of news outlets to mediate information that is pertinent to
our lives, and ultimately to our survival, content should not be treated like another benign commodity. How newsgathering functions should be a major political concern to everyone, beyond local broadcasters and public interest groups.

The only 2008 presidential candidate who has taken an official stand on the matter of media consolidation is Barack Obama, who is behind the Media Ownership Act of 2007 spearheaded by Senator Dorgan.

Public comment on the proposal may be submitted using the FCC’s web form.

Sources

1. The Information War,
Dale Minor, 1970

2. Prologue to a Farce, Mark Lloyd, 2006

3. The Free Press, http://www.freepress.net

 

Images

Kevin Martin at FCC Headquarters- Associated Press, 10/31/07 Found in The Baltimore Sun, online edition http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bal-bz.media08nov08,0,5153236.story

Weapons of Mass Destruction in Fallujah- From: Iraq
and Weapons of Mass Destruction
, National
Security Archive at The George Washington University Electronic Briefing Book No. 80 http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB80/fallujah.jpg

Wall Street Journal Image- Deal Breaker: Online Wall Street Tabloid http://www.dealbreaker.com/business_media/

Drexel University Media Consolidation Symposium Flyer- What Price Media Consolidation Symposium, 2005 http://www.drexel.edu/westphal/news_events/archive_2005.asp

Corporate Power/Mickey is a No Good Rat- Designed By: Reclaim The Media http://www.reclaimthemedia.org/corporate_power_consolidation?page=3

Newscorp Stock Value for Nov 13- New York Times Online: Business Section- Business and Financial News: Research, 11/3/07 http://custom.marketwatch.com/custom/nyt-com/html-story.asp?guid={399BFD81-8BDC-4462-96C0-055498833251}&symb=NWS&sid=1856813&siteid=NYT&dist=NYT&osymb=NWS

Prometheus Radio Project Flyer- Designed By Rolando Penate, rollie@scrollie.com http://www.scrollie.com/content/jpg/bsr/20040731-prometheus.jpg

Chicago Tribune Tower, 3/ 29/07- Associated Press/Chicago Tribune, E. Jason Wambsgans http://www.cbc.ca/news/story/2007/04/02/tribune-sale.html

Last Three Photos Taken by Author, Creative Commons License:

‘Stop Big Media’ Rally Outside FCC Headquarters, 10/31/07- By: Nicole Guerra

Reverend Jesse Jackson Speaks at Rally, 10/31/07- By: Nicole Guerra

Big Media Bites, 10/31/07- By: Nicole Guerra