Free the Media!

The Senate Commerce Committee struck a blow against Big Media June 19, voting to overturn the changes in media ownership rules that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell rammed through that hapless agency on June 2. With contempt for public opinion Powell had opened the door for media conglomerates such as Fox, Viacom, General Electric, Disney and others who want to raise the limit on how many TV stations one corporation could own -- from the already expansive limit of 35% of US households to a new limit of 45% coverage. Powell and his two fellow Republican commissioners also changed rules that restrict the same corporation from owning a newspaper, radio and TV stations in the same market.

Powell and his GOP colleagues ignored more than three-quarters of a million Americans who sent the FCC comments opposing the rule changes. The opposition brought together groups ranging from Common Cause to the National Rifle Association who are alarmed at the potential media monopolization. Even the industry's own lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters, wanted to keep the 35% cap, Tom Shales noted in the Washington Post, because most of its members are smaller broadcasting companies who are likely to be eaten up by the multimedia conglomerates if deregulation gets the green light.

The Senate bill, S1046, sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, would reverse those changes. Amendments would also prevent one company from owning a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same market or a radio station and TV station in the same market, and require the FCC to hold at least five geographically diverse formal public hearings when an ownership rule change comes up for consideration (Powell held just one). Sen. John McCain, Commerce chairman, added an amendment that would require Clear Channel Communications to divest some of its 1,250 radio stations. Clear Channel is not above using its stations for political purposes, banning the Dixie Chicks from its playlists after one of its members criticized George W. Bush.

There appears to be substantial support for the bill in the Senate, but grassroots action is needed to get Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to bring it to the full Senate. It also faces daunting opposition in the House, where Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, is a loyal servant of Big Media.

Contact your senators as well as your House member to encourage them to support the public interest instead of corporate lobbyists. (See more details at www.mediareform.net.)

There are at least two House bills. HR 2052 by Richard Burr, R-N.C., and John Dingell, D-Mich., merely rolls the audience cap back to 35%. A more progressive solution is HR 2462, by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would repeal all the new rules and relieve the FCC of its ability to review media ownership rules.

Tauzin may be able to bottle up media reform bills in his committee, but the appropriations process presents an opportunity to limit the FCC's ability to implement the new rules. McCain also has a reauthorization bill (S1264) that expresses the intent of Congress that the FCC may tighten as well as relax rules. That would undermine an appeals court decision used by the industry and Powell to justify deregulation.

But reinstating media ownership limits is only the first step in broadcast media reform. Next, Congress should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, requiring broadcasters to alternate politically biased talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage with liberal hosts. Radio and TV stations use public airwaves free of charge and they are supposed to operate them as a public trust. They have failed miserably, as the lack of balance in talk show hosts proves.

(And don't tell me liberals don't attract viewers and listeners. Phil Donahue's show on MSNBC was cancelled last winter, supposedly due to poor ratings, although his numbers were among the highest on the cable channel. And ABC Radio's ad sales department was calling Jim Hightower's talk show ratings "respectable" in 1995, right up to the time the populist firebrand criticized Disney's takeover of ABC and was taken off the air overnight.)

As long as liberals can't start up their own radio or TV channels to compete in the marketplace of ideas with billionaires such as Rupert Murdoch, the public needs an equalizer. Congress should step in if the FCC relinquishes its role. (Remember that Powell and his cronies also put the kibosh on the Democratic plan to authorize low-power radio stations to serve communities that are ignored by the commercial stations.) If commercial stations don't want to serve the entire public, and not just the right wing, they should forfeit their license to make money off the use of public airwaves.

Along with the Fairness Doctrine, Congress should consider a 10% tax on broadcast advertising. Nearly $50 billion was spent on radio and TV advertising in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. A broadcast ad tax would generate some revenue in exchange for the use of the airwaves and the $5 billion could be used to clean up federal elections, providing public financing of campaigns that would free congressional candidates from the need to accept bribes from corporate lobbyists. The ad tax also would provide the needed resources to free the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio from their reliance on business sponsors, which often leads to questions about conflict of interest.

The Senate Commerce vote was only the first punch and the Big Media lobbyists will fight back. But the time is ripe to strike at Big Media. They overreached and left themselves open to a populist push to re-regulate them.

Affirmative Distraction

The Supreme Court eked out a sensible decision on affirmative action in the University of Michigan cases June 23: affirming the law school's use of race as a factor in increasing student diversity. The 5-4 ruling was still attacked as endorsing race-based quotas, but working-class whites who resent initiatives designed to advance minorities should urge top schools' admissions offices to also put a premium on first-generation college attendance or growing up in a blue-collar home.

Unfortunately, admission is only the first hurdle for minority or working-class students. A more formidable one is the mounting cost of attending universities. The cost of attending the University of Michigan is approximately $18,000 for Michigan residents and more than $36,000 for out-of-state students. Many states have increased tuition to make up for budget shortfalls. Even relatively undistinguished private universities cost nearly $30,000 a year. Now millions of college students (or their parents) will have to shoulder more of the cost of their education under new rules quietly imposed by the Bush administration in May. The change in the "federal need analysis," the formula that determines how much of a family's income is truly discretionary and therefore fair game for covering college expenses, was adopted without public comment and does not require congressional approval. The change will cost some families an extra $100 or less while others may owe well over $1,000 more, the New York Times reported June 13. The feds will save hundreds of millions of dollars in Pell Grants to low-income students, starting in 2004, but the changes go even further than that $11 billion program, which aids 4.8 million students, since state, college and university grants also follow the federal formula in determining financial aid.

So affirmative action is just another resentment-creating distraction. The US has the resources to make higher education available for every qualified high school graduate but instead penny-wise and pound-foolish legislators, following the White House's lead, are moving to close off the nation's universities to all but those elites whose parents can write the checks and those who can play NCAA athletics. -- JMC

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