Big Media Gets Bigger

Concentration of radio and TV stations in the hands of a few media giants is a major threat to democracy. But the Bush administration looks ready to bull ahead with it.

Five corporations -- Viacom, Disney, Time-Warner, NewsCorp and NBC/GE -- control the big four networks and most cable channels, with vast holdings in radio, publishing, movie studios, music, the Internet and other business sectors, according to mediareform.net. Clear Channel Communications owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, many of which are programmed directly from its studios in San Antonio and Austin. Lowry Mays, Clear Channel founder and chief executive officer, told Fortune magazine in 2003, "We're not in the business of providing news and information. ... We're simply in the business of selling our customers products."

Clear Channel doesn't do a very good job of providing news and information but it is a very profitable business. In the third quarter of 2003, the company showed an operating margin of 17.87% against an industry average of 16.13%. If Michael Powell gets his way, it could get even bigger and more profitable.

Powell is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which came to San Antonio, Clear Channel's hometown, Jan. 28 for a public hearing on localism -- the quaint idea that broadcasters must use the publicly-owned airwaves to serve the communities in which they operate. The evening hearing attracted an overflow crowd of more than 500, some of whom had waited outside since 4 a.m. to get into the City Council Chambers.

The commission held only one public hearing last spring before it voted along partisan lines on June 2, 2003, to relax TV ownership rules, despite getting two million public objections. It raised the cap on how many TV stations one company could own, it eliminated a ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and daily newspapers in all but the smallest markets and it permitted one company to own as many as three TV stations, one newspaper and eight radio stations in a city. Now the FCC has embarked on a series of public hearings to explain its action and get public input that ostensibly will be used when the FCC considers license renewals, which are decided en masse by state. More hearings are planned for Santa Cruz/Salinas, Calif., Rapid City, S.D., Portland, Maine, and Washington, D.C.

Commisioners got an earful from Texans who expressed their frustrations with big media companies during the 5-1/2-hour hearing. (You can send your own comments to the FCC at www.fcc.gov/localism -- and it's a lot easier to file online than on paper).

Before the hearing, at a rally of deregulation critics in the city park across the street, Bob Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor, noted that the good news is that that broadcasters are still required by law to act in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." But the bad news is that it is up to the FCC to enforce that law -- and under Powell the right-wing agenda of deregulation is firmly in place. "Not only has the public interest been sold down the river," Jensen said, "the FCC under Michael Powell wants to sell the river."

John Courage of San Antonio found out about broadcasters' news ethics when he ran a Quixotic campaign for Congress against Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, in 2002. When he tried to get radio and TV coverage, he said, he quickly found out that "unless I could prove I had hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for their advertising, they weren't interested in hearing what I had to say about the important issues that people need to know about." When they did put him on the air, he said, he got "maybe a 20-second spot and a five-second sound bite." He ended up with 25% of the vote. Now Courage works with Citizens for Ethical Government in San Antonio (ceg-sa.org), which promotes greater transparency in city decision-making and local campaign finance reform with an eye to public financing. But independent media is vital, he said.

"If we allow the further conglomeration of the media ... then we're finding the situation the country found at the beginning of the last century, with corporations milking the country," Courage said. "Then we had the muckrakers to expose them ... Now that the corporations are in control of the media, who's going to stand up for us?"

Joe Ptak of San Marcos, Texas, 30 miles southwest of Austin, started up his own unlicensed low-power radio station to serve the community of 38,000 because the commercial stations licensed on frequencies assigned to San Marcos ignored local events and were indistinguishable from other stations in the greater Austin market. After commercial stations complained, the FCC shut down Ptak's station, fined him $11,000 and ordered him not to make further unauthorized broadcasts. Under Powell the commission also put a moratorium on low-power licenses, although he said a "settlement window" for low-power FM applications would open soon.

Many people are unaware that radio and TV stations pay nothing more than their nominal licensing fee for the use of the public airwaves. We propose a 10% tax on broadcast advertisements. Such a tax would generate $3.8 billion (based on 2002 ad sales) -- add another $1 billion if you include cable TV ads. That would cover public financing of congressional and presidential campaigns as well as the budgets of public radio and TV stations.

Dennis Kucinich has the strongest media reform platform among Democratic presidential candidates (see www.kuci-nich.us/issues for his populist positions on campaign reform, media reform, electronic voting safeguards, instant runoff voting, media reform and open debates). He was a Cleveland Plain Dealer copy boy and a Wall Street Journal copy reader, later had his own radio shows and was a TV reporter in Cleveland. He is still a card-carrying member of IATSE, the cameraman's union.

Howard Dean's fall from grace with the media roughly coincided with his Dec. 1 appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, where he told Chris Matthews he proposes to re-regulate the broadcast media, reimpose the Fairness Doctrine and break up media conglomerates. At www.deanforamerica.com under "campaign financing" he proposes to increase public matching funds for presidential candidates and would expand public financing to all federal candidates. He would pay for it with a 0.5% "spectrum use fee" and require that TV and radio broadcasters offer a few hours of civic broadcasting every week around election time.

Kerry doesn't address media or campaign reform issues on his website (www.johnkerry.com) but he told the Hollywood Reporter Jan. 27 that while he supported the easing of limits on radio ownership (he voted for the telecommunications deregulation bill in 1996), he opposes further media deregulation. He said he supports "equal time requirements" to balance coverage. Asked if he would consider more aggressive measures to break up media conglomerates, replied, "I will appoint people to the FCC who have the sensitivities to these issues, and I will certainly have an attorney general and a Justice Department that care about legitimate antitrust considerations in America." He supported Senate efforts to roll back FCC deregulation last year.

John Edwards doesn't address media issues on his website (www.JohnEdwards2004.com) but he supported the effort to roll back the FCC deregulation.

Wesley Clark (clark04.com) has had little to say about media issues, but last November he criticized Dean's proposal to re-regulate business and the media, saying it abandons the success of the Clinton administration, which led in the deregulation of energy and telecommunications markets. "Regulation is not going to get our economy moving again. It failed in the past, it will fail again," Clark said.

But even Bill Clinton has said the FCC is out of control and needs to rescind the deregulation. Now is the time to lock in congressional and presidential candidates to a media reform platform, before nominees start heading to the center. -- JMC

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