July 07, 2003
Clinton looking for the Spotlight

FCC forgot basic fact: They're our airwaves is the title of a fatuous rant by Clinton that appeared in today's Seattle Times (it was originally written for the New York Daily News). It's long on rhetoric and short on facts (sort of like Clinton himself).

"It's your money," says President Bush when he promotes tax cuts. I disagree with his tax policy but admire his spin. The same argument applies with greater force to whether big media conglomerates should be allowed to control more television and radio stations: "It's your airwaves."

Clinton calling the Bush administration position spin is similar to Michael Moore calling Rush Limbaugh fat. (It's simply not true, and it's hypocritical in the extreme).

The American people own the bandwidth that broadcast media companies use to deliver programs to our TVs and radios. Because the space on that bandwidth is limited, the Federal Communications Commission regulates who has access to our eyes and ears.

No, the FCC does not regulate who has access to our eyes and ears. The FCC regulates who has broadcast licenses; we ourselves regulate who has access to our eyes and ears. It it typical big-government nanny-state thinking that insists that the government controls everything.

For more than 60 years, the FCC allowed companies to own a number of local TV stations, provided that no single company owned enough to reach more than 35 percent of the population of the United States.
But on June 2, by a 3-2 vote, the FCC raised the limit to 45 percent, giving big media firms the chance to gobble up many more local TV stations. In fact, a single giant corporation will be able to control up to three of the television stations in America's nine largest cities.

Oh, heavens. Lock up your daughters! Three stations in the nine largest media markets. Hmmm. How many stations are contained within those nine markets? Let's see, four major networks, three minor networks, PBS, and a plethora of independent stations. Owning three of the more than seventy stations in those media markets is hardly monolithic. Even with the maximum ownership permitted, only 45 percent of the country will even have access to any one company's channel. That is access, not viewership. No channel has a hammerlock on their media markets; not for news and not for entertainment.

The FCC also opened the door to local TV-newspaper mergers in many places, so you'll be getting your news and information from the same company regardless of whether you're turning on the TV or opening the newspaper.

This is not a change. Multimedia firms have been around for quite some time. They are not some hideous new beast springing from the loins of the evil corporofascist Republicans.

Why is this bad? Because more monolithic control over local media will reduce the diversity of information, opinion and entertainment people get. Interesting local coverage will be supplanted by lowest-common-denominator mass-market mush.

This is rubbish. In the case of newspapers, they are not going to discontinue their local sections; with the exception of a few big papers, their national and international news comes from the wire agencies such as AP, UPI, Reuters, and AFP.

Television stations are similar. Local news is not going to be replaced by a national newscast, and for the most part, all the rest of the programming is national anyway.

Radio stations are the ones that are most likely to be affected by corporate control, and the new FCC ruling has no direct effect on them. In any case, there are over 10,000 radio stations here in the US, and competition is intense. If too many stations in a market start playing the same thing, their ratings will suffer as they will be drawing on the same audience. A station with a unique sound will be able to distinguish itself in the crowd, if there is a market for that sound. This is one of the reasons that liberal talk radio has failed; there is no audience.

But don't cable TV and the Internet give people more sources of information? In theory, yes. In practice, not necessarily. Big media firms own most of the cable networks and supply much of the content for major Internet sites.

The wonderful thing about the internet is that it allows one to read stuff that is not from the major corporations, and not even from this country. Not only can I read stuff from Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, but also English langauage papers from Singapore, South Africa, Russia, Japan, Kenya, India, and many other nations. If I spoke another language, there would be even more options.

As for cable, with over 200 channels to choose from (on most digital cable systems), out of a spectrum of over 500, there are plenty of options, from lefty CNN and BBC, to conservative Fox News, to politics-free sites such as the Food Channel and the Game Show Network.

Is this another Democrat vs. Republican battle? Is my concern motivated by the growing influence of right-wing voices in the broadcast media?
While it's true the FCC vote split along party lines Republicans for looser standards, Democrats against and while I have noticed the conservative slant in more media organizations these days, the debate over media ownership is not a partisan one.

(rolls eyes) Oh, please. A few facts first. Yes, Fox News is the number one cable news channel. It and MSNBC (the other "conservative" channel) have nowhere near the combined audience of ABC, NBS, CBS, and CNN. In addition, FOX and MSNBC are not available to anyone without cable, whereas the broadcast channels are available to just about everyone with a TV.

As for the old canard that the newspapers are conservative because they are owned by corporations, a little perspective is in order. I did a little digging to check on the editorial endorsements of the 50 largest newspapers in the United States in the 2000 race. Of the 50, three did not offer endorsements (USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel), and I could not find information on three (Newark Star-Ledger, Orange County Register, and Investor's Business Daily). Of the remaining 46, they split 23 1/2 for Gore, and 21 1/2 for Bush (The Atlanta Journal/Constitution split their endorsements, even though they are owned by the same company—more on that in a moment). I have included the Wall Street Journal as a Bush supporter, even though they didn't formally endorse him.

Organizations from the National Organization for Women to the National Rifle Association have spoken out against what the FCC decided to do. More than 750,000 Americans of all political persuasions registered their opinion of the new rules with the FCC, and nearly 100 percent of them were opposed!

The only people who are going to complain about the rules are those who are opposed, and I'm sure that the organized campaigns from left-wing pressure groups had a lot to do with the nearly unanimous support.

The lack of diversity and independence in the broadcast media may be why you didn't hear much about this big issue on TV or radio in recent months.

I don't know about that. Try living in Seattle. The Seattle Times, normally a conservative paper, is opposed to joint ownership. The reason is because their competitor is owned by Hearst Communications, which has plenty of money to burn should they feel the need to buy a TV station here in Seattle.

But the opposition is truly a grass-roots movement, and it won't go away, even if it's not on the evening news. And the voice of the people is beginning to be heard, at least on Capitol Hill.
The Senate Commerce Committee acted quickly after the FCC vote to approve legislation on a bipartisan basis that would reinstate more-sensible media ownership rules.

"More sensible"—there's a nice, neutral term.

"Bipartisan" is a way of saying that the GOP caved on yet another Democratic Party demand. If the Dems had given way, it would have been due to "inflexible hard-liners" in the GOP.

Although Republicans as well as Democrats oppose the FCC decision, it's unclear whether the Commerce Committee legislation can pass in the full Senate or in the House of Representatives.
The FCC ruling also faces challenges in the courts. But there is no guarantee the commission's error will be corrected anytime soon.

Of course, he is operating under the assumption that the ruling is in error. Maybe we *do* need a supreme court challenge.

Therefore, Congress is our best hope. Whatever your political philosophy, if you favor competition and diversity in the media, you should call, write or e-mail your senators and representatives.
The stakes are high. "At issue," says FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, "is whether a few corporations will be ceded enhanced gatekeeper control over the civil dialogue of our country; more content control over our music, entertainment and information, and veto power over the majority of what our families watch, hear and read."

Michael Copps, in case you are not sure, is one of the Democrats on the FCC board. And there is no way they will be able to exercise "veto power" over what we will be able to watch, hear, or read. At least he didn't resort to cries of "Censorship!"

People joke about my liking McDonald's, and I do. But actually I prefer to go down to Lange's Deli, a great family establishment, near my house.
In the brave new world being defined by the FCC, there will be more McMedia on our airwaves and far fewer broadcast equivalents of our favorite local diners.

All through this column, Clinton has been operating under the assumption that media corporations are indivisible, that each piece of the company will have the same views and aims of other parts of the same company, That simply is not true. Look at this report (in .pdf format) from the FCC, detailing the reporting patterns of same-market TV stations and newspapers. The differences are startling. In addition, the report points out that several companies have different editorial stances within a segment of the media. For example, the Tribune Corp. had four newspapers in the study. Two supported Bush (Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant), one Gore (Newsday), and the LA Times offered no endorsement.

Unlike restaurants, the airwaves belong to us. We shouldn't give up our right to have more choice.

Media ownership consolidation is not the big concern that the left has made it out to be. In most cases, a new owner simply means that one big company bought another one, or that two big companies shuffled some properties amongst each other. It's not reducing choice, it's akin to a Wendy's becoming a Burger King, or a KFC becoming an Arby's (to continue Clinton's fast food analogy).

posted on July 07, 2003 09:00 PM



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