Thursday, 29 November 2007

Theft of Our Airwaves

In what is truly a case of the privileged few versus the muzzled many, the FCC wants to further expand the consolidation of our media, which is already dominated by the broadcasting giants. Chairman Kevin Martin earlier this month proposed a relaxation of the rules against newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership within the same market area. And he's trying to rush its enactment before the holidays, by ending its comment period on December 11.

Martin is well aware that there is overwhelming widespread objection to media consolidation, as was evident at the last public hearing on the matter which I attended in Seattle on November 9th. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Trent Lott (R-MS) have been leading the effort in the Senate to oppose the FCC's attempts at further consolidation.

Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps & Jonathan Adelstein have been consistent voices at the FCC in favor of the public interest and against consolidation, but the Republican majority have ignored the overwhelming opposition even within their own party, and consistently sided with big media. Prior to Kevin Martin, it was Michael Powelll who did big media's bidding. But before you think I'm impugning only Republicans in the sellout of OUR airwaves to Big Media, consider that Powell was appointed to the FCC by Clinton in 1997, more than a year after Clinton himself signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a massive overhaul of the laws governing media ownership, which resulted in unprecedented consolidation of media.

Back in those days not too many people outside the industry were paying attention to the dry subject of media regulation, but Clear Channel Communications for instance went on a buying spree with the elimination of the 40-station ownership cap, and now owns over 1200. Rupert Murdoch, Disney Corporation, AOL-Time-Warner, and others have been subsequent beneficiaries of this monumental legislation. In the name of deregulation and "free" ownership, we have created a situation where smaller operations without huge capital are squeezed out, local stories get short shrift, and our news sources have become homogenized. It turns out those restrictions actually served to empower the little guys. Minority ownership is down; local ownership is down; and bots are running radio stations controlled from thousands of miles away, saving money for the owners, but not serving the needs of the public consumers of media.

Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has become a champion of derailing the consolidation train, in part due to a literal train derailment in his home state in 2002, when 210,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia was spilled near Minot. Authorities were unable to contact KCJB, the designated emergency broadcaster in a market where six of the seven commercial stations are owned by Clear Channel who typically pipe in broadcast material from elsewhere.

I'll warrant that the current deregulation is small potatoes compared to the monstrosity that Clinton signed into law, but it does include some back door provisions that make it worse in reality than it is on its face. We need to push lawmakers to go in the opposite direction and create incentives for more local and diverse control of all media. One step toward further consolidation is not the answer, no matter how Martin might spin it (pages 5&6). The time is short for contacting your members of Congress on this, or registering your comment at the FCC (click on Media Ownership ...-Docket 06-121.)

For more background on media consolidation, few have poured as much energy into this issue impacting our democracy as Bill Moyers, who offers a primer here. A great timeline of events related to media consolidation can be found on PBS's NOW website.

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