Take Back the Airwaves 

Ever since the first broadcast radio stations were authorized more than 75 years ago the United States has maintained that the airwaves belong to the public and are to be operated by broadcasting companies as a public trust. As radio and later TV and cable properties have grown to become big business, the corporations that control them have chafed at ó or ignored ó the public trust responsibilities. Now a recent court decision and upcoming action at the Federal Communications Commission is expected to further dilute any pretense that broadcast companies have any responsibility other than to make the biggest profit for their stockholders.

The Communications Act of 1934 codified that the airways belong to the public and that broadcasters must earn a license to use them by serving the "interest, convenience, and necessity" of the American public. The FCC was set up to look after the public interest. The public had the right to intervene in the renewal of a broadcaster's license and the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to air alternative viewpoints. Then the era of deregulation under Ronald Reagan delivered broadcasting corporations to the promised land. Reagan's FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, declared that "market forces" would define "public interests." The Fairness Doctrine was scrapped and license renewal became a pro-forma process.

After an aggressive lobbying campaign by media corporations, Congress revamped the Communications Act of 1934 into the Telecommunications Act in 1996. The new law not only granted hundreds of billions of dollars worth of digital spectrum to existing broadcast companies free of charge. It also greatly expanded the opportunities of aggressive media companies to buy radio and TV stations. Radio broadcasting was practically deregulated so that any single company could own as many stations as it was able to buy. The law maintained the prohibition on ownership of a TV station and a cable system or newspaper in the same community, but otherwise the only limits were that a company could not own more than 35% of all TV stations in the United States and a single company could provide cable TV services to no more than 30% of the US population. The FCC was reduced to little more than a clearinghouse for the reporting of transactions.

That was not enough for the capitalists who control the media holding companies. Last year, they got the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to strike down the rules barring cable companies from controlling more than 30% of the nation's total pay-TV market.

Then Feb. 19 the same appeals court struck down rules that prevent companies from owning cable systems and broadcast stations in the same market. The court also ordered the FCC to reconsider the rules keeping any television-station owner from controlling more than 35% of the national TV market.

That directive is in line with FCC Chairman Michael Powell's stated intentions. He has been looking for the opportunity and with two fellow Republican commissioners the FCC is likely to relax the limit substantially, or eliminate it.

If the ruling stands, media conglomerates such as AOL Time Warner Inc. or Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. would be free to acquire broadcast networks such as General Electric's NBC. They also could acquire stations or broadcast groups affiliated with existing Warner Brothers or Fox networks.

The ruling also will make it easier for networks to continue their strategy of trying to buy as many of their highly profitable local affiliates as possible, the Wall Street Journal reported. Bud Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications Corp., one of the nation's largest broadcasters, said elimination of the 35% cap will lead to "massive consolidation" as "smaller stations sell out."

In their excellent report on "Big Media" in the Jan. 7/14 The Nation, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols noted that critiques have gone beyond complaints of shoddy journalism to broad expressions of concern about hypercommercial, corporate-directed culture and the corruption of communications policy-making by special interest lobbies and and pliable legislators.

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., complained last year that he was unable to get the media to cover his proposal to slash television rates for political ads. So he took to the Senate floor and denounced Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw for hypocrisy. While they "waged a virtual campaign for reform," the Torricelli said, "their corporate executives, lobbyists and PAC directors were all over Capitol Hill, fighting the reform."

While the House's approval of campaign finance reform earlier this month drew vast coverage, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted that broadcast networks "somehow failed to mention that high-powered television lobbyists killed an amendment that would have provided cheaper rates for candidate advertising. With a few exceptions ó such as the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and Variety ó the rest of the media ignored it as well, despite their usual delight in reporting on the maneuvering of powerful special-interest lobbies."

The Senate passed the Torricelli amendment last year, 69-31. But with $750 million per election cycle at stake, the National Association of Broadcasters and cable television's lobbying group, has given $200,000 to congressional candidates since last year, two-thirds of it to Republicans, got the House to kill the advertising discount for federal candidates, 327-101.

Our prescription for broadcast media reform is to reassert the public control over TV and radio stations and make them accountable to the public.

• Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, which requires stations to air alternative points of view, and require companies to prove that they deserve renewal of their broadcast license.

• Break up media monopolies and restrict ownership of radio and TV stations to no more than three by any one company and only one station in any market.

• Reinstate the move toward licensing low-power noncommercial radio and TV stations to serve communities.

• Require TV stations to provide well-funded news and public affairs programming (during waking hours).

• Reinstate the Torricelli amendment to force broadcasters to sell political ads during prime time at discount rates.

• Boost public broadcasting. Some may consider NPR and PBS feckless and/or elitist, but compared with commercial broadcasting they are beacons of probity and objectivity. PBS's Now with Bill Moyers is one of the few public interest investigative programs worthy of the name. Conservatives would like to muzzle Moyers and keep public broadcasting underfed and beholden to corporate sponsors.

Our prescription for public broadcasting is to levy a 10% tax on broadcast commercials. That would raise approximately $5 billion annually. Not only would it pay for public radio and TV; it also could bankroll "Clean Elections" public financing of congressional campaigns, which would reduce lawmakers' dependence on the kindness of lobbyists.

In a related issue, the US Postal Service is expected to raise rates for periodicals by an average of 10.5% this summer, with the increase for smaller circulation magazines approximately 14.2%. Another rate case is expected in the fall, seeking another hike in the periodicals rate ó as much as 30%.

Small-circulation journals such as The Progressive Populist pay more because large-circulation magazines can take advantage of discounts unavailable to small publishers.

Ultimately these rate increases must be passed onto subscribers. We don't want to increase our rates to a level you can't afford, and you don't want to be forced to rely on AOL Time Warner or Murdoch's News Corp. for your news.

Tell the Postmaster General that small, independent publications are crucial to a well-informed democracy and there is a public interest in letting them get the word out at the lowest cost possible. Write Postmaster General John Potter, US Postal Service, 475 L'Enfant Pl SW 10th Floor, Washington, DC 20260; email: pmgceo@email.usps.gov. And tell your Congress member too. -- JMC

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