FCC and media consolidation
“There are just five or six companies in America that dominate the media landscape—giant multinational conglomerates. So there may be a lot of different voices but they’re coming from the same ventriloquist.”
–Jonathan Adelstein, FCC Commissioner
ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER/PRODUCER: The ongoing battle between corporate media and consumer interests is coming to a head. Chairman Martin of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has announced plans to pass new regulations for media ownership. The most controversial of these changes would allow one company to own a local newspaper, a radio station, and a TV network in any of America’s twenty largest media markets. After nearly two years of deliberation and ten official studies later, Chairman Martin has allowed only nineteen working days between releasing his proposal and the scheduled vote on December 18. Many are outraged by the sudden rush to judgment and allege that Martin is bending under corporate pressure. The chairman of the FCC was unavailable for comment. We spoke with FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Craig Aaron of the Free Press.
JONATHAN S. ADELSTEIN, FCC COMMISSIONER: Well, we’re hearing regularly from big companies like Tribune that’s looking for a merger. We hear from Media General. We hear from a lot of the existing companies that control a lot of outlets that they would like to own even more. So these are already well-heeled companies that are strong with big national lobbying shops, and they come here and they say, “We’re big, but we want to get bigger.” And they don’t always come up with a good rationale. They say, “Oh, we’re hurting.” But you look at the newspaper industry, they used to make 30% profit margins, and now they’re down to 19% and they’re in full panic mode.
CRAIG AARON, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, FREE PRESS: He’s all of a sudden in this headlong rush to get these new rules pushed through by the end of the year, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is a lot of intense lobbying coming from companies like the Tribune Company, the owner of The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times and more than twenty television stations across the country, as well as other holdings. They’ve just sold the company to a Chicago real estate mogul named Sam Zell. And in order for the deal to go through, they want to know what the rules are going to be, because they’ve been operating under waivers in a bunch of markets, including L.A. and New York, where those don’t come with the deal. You know, the deal, some of the properties were grandfathered in, some of them were supposed to be temporary waivers. The Tribune wants them to be made permanent so that they can own both television stations and the major daily newspaper in some of the biggest markets in the country. So they’re pushing for that to get done by the end of the year.
NKWETA: These rule changes are part of a process that started in 2004, when the FCC passed similar deregulations that were quickly overturned by the courts. We spoke with Andrew Schwartzman, a lawyer who argued against the FCC in that case.
ANDREW J. SCHWARTZMAN, PRESIDENT, MEDIA ACCESS PROJECT: In June 2004, the U.S. court of appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the FCC had acted improperly when it attempted to lift most of its broadcast ownership rules. The court told the FCC to try again, but to this time examine the rules without putting a thumb on the scales, giving it a fair shake, not having a presumption in favour of deregulation.
NKWETA: In a New York Times op-ed, Chairman Martin argues that allowing cross-ownership is necessary to save the so-called dying newspaper industry, with its average circulation down 2.6% in the last six months. He also claims that the current rules written in the 1970s are outdated and fail to account for the diversity that new mediums provide.
ADELSTEIN: Even though there’s 300 channels on satellite and cable, there’s still less diversity than there used to be, because so few companies control so many of those channels, and particularly the ones that people tend to watch. There’s just five or six companies in America that dominate the media landscape, the giant multinational conglomerates. So there may be a lot of different voices, but they’re coming from the same ventriloquist. What we need is to enhance diversity, to make sure there are as many voices as possible, so that people can make up their own minds about decisions of the day. Now, if we allowed newspapers to buy up local media outlets, there’s going to be a voice lost in that community, there’s going to be less diversity.
NKWETA: In 2003, over 3 million people voiced their dissent to allowing media consolidation. Today, public opinion is still overwhelmingly against deregulation.
AARON: But when it comes to average citizens, you know, they’re saying, no, stop, we think big media is already big enough. We want more local media. We want more diversity in our media. And we want more media choices. That’s what the public wants. And if you go to these public hearings across the country—I’ve been to a number of them—you know, people are lining up, you know, it’s a rainy Tuesday night and people are showing up, hundreds and hundreds of people. And, again, ninety percent, ninety-five percent of the comments that you’re hearing from the public say, “Stop. We don’t want to see these handful of companies get even more powerful.”
ADELSTEIN: Everywhere we go in cities and towns across America, we hear repeatedly that more consolidation is not in their interests. They don’t think it’s in their interests. They don’t think having fewer owners control more outlets is a good idea. So why is it that some here inside Washington, inside the beltway, think somehow we know better what’s in the public interest than the public does itself?
NKWETA: Analysts expect the FCC to pass these new rules. But heavy public pressure might lead Congress to take matters into its own hands. This week, the Senate is scheduled to vote on a proposal that will require another ninety days of deliberation on the FCC’s new rules. The real question now is how much has changed since 2003, when deregulation of media ownership was rejected by both Congress and the courts.
ADELSTEIN: We’re hearing signs from Congress on a bipartisan basis that they will veto anything the FCC tries to do to allow further consolidation. I don’t know why we’re beating our heads up against the wall and going through all the pain and suffering that it takes to go through this regulation, when we know at the end of the day it’s going to get rejected by Congress.
AARON: And it leads you to this moment of, well, why is this happening? Since news of Chairman Martin’s secret plan is leaked there’s a whole lot of energy, and, you know, that this may actually blow up in his face. I mean, we’ve seen, you know, just a few days ago, Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, Senator Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, they don’t agree on much, but they went and they had a press conference, and they said, you know, if you do this and you don’t listen to the public, if you do this and you don’t complete the research you’re supposed to have done, we’re going to introduce a resolution to throw out whatever you do.
SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: We’re going to introduce legislation. We will also try in other ways to see if we can block this, because this is announcing a rule in November, driving it through by December 18, that is an abrogation of all standards that would allow the American people to weigh in. In almost every case, you have sixty- to ninety-day comment periods on significant rule changes. The chairman is not wise to try to jam this thing down the throats of the American people at this point.
AARON: And that threat has real teeth, because that’s exactly what they did in 2003 the last time the Republican majority at the FCC tried to do this.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.