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The FCC's rule changes:
A green light for the media monopolies

June 6, 2003 | Page 8

NICOLE COLSON explains what the controversy over new rules voted on by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is all about.

"MONOPOLY IS a terrible thing--until you have it." Those were the words of right-wing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV, Fox News, Century Fox studios and the New York Post, among many others media outlets. And under new rules approved in a 3-to-2 vote by the FCC on June 2, Murdoch's control of the airwaves could grow even worse.

The proposals that the FCC voted on were never formally released to the public because FCC Chair Michael Powell--son of Secretary of State Colin Powell--wanted to ram a vote through before the public comment process sparked wider opposition. But according to reports, the rule changes fall into three categories.

One set of provisions overturns a 28-year-old ban on a single company owning a newspaper and television or radio stations in the same city. Another increases the number of cities in which a single company can own two or more television stations. A third allows a single company to own television stations that reach 45 percent of the national viewing audience, up from the current cap of 35 percent.

Basically, a company like Murdoch's News Corp. can gobble up newspapers, TV stations and radio stations in the same local market--and then merge newsrooms and consolidate what is seen, heard and read. Meanwhile, small and medium-sized broadcast companies and newspaper publishers will most likely be swallowed up by bigger competitors in a corporate media feeding frenzy.

Murdoch sounded as innocent as a lamb when he told the Senate Commerce Committee that relaxing regulations would be a great thing for consumers--and swore that he wasn't about to add to his empire. "I have no plans for anything other than the what I have before you today," said Murdoch--prompting several senators to burst out laughing.

Except for media giants and pro-business flunkies like Powell, nobody really thinks that the proposed changes are a good idea. Even media moguls like CNN founder Ted Turner and Barry Diller, the chair of USA Interactive, say that the new rules "will stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete," as Turner put it in op-ed article in the Washington Post.

As it stands, of course, the corporate media is hardly democratic. As Amy Goodman, host of the left-wing radio program Democracy Now! said at a recent Atlanta panel discussion on the proposed rule changes, a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that of more than 300 interviews on the major broadcast news networks in the lead-up to the war on Iraq, less than 1 percent represented an antiwar view. "We are talking not about an exclusion of the fringe minority, or even the silent majority, but the silenced majority--silenced by the mainstream media, that will become even more homogenous and exclusive if the June 2 vote takes place," Goodman said.

FAIR also found that 92 percent of all U.S. news sources interviewed on the nightly newscasts of ABC, NBC and CBS in 2001 were white. Yet under the new rules, diversity will likely shrink--because small minority-owned stations will be sucked up by larger corporations.

And according to a recent study by the advocacy group Children Now, the number of children's shows on television decreased by 47 percent over the past five years because of already increasing media monopoly. "The largest decrease in programming for children occurred at stations that are part of so-called 'duopolies'--where one company owns two broadcast stations in the same media market," the group said.

Media concentration will only get worse under the new rules. As the liberal Web site MoveOn.org commented: "For the public, it means higher cable bills, fewer choices, canned programming and reduced coverage of community issues."

In the weeks leading up to the FCC vote, most media outlets tried to ignore the story. But a grassroots campaign began attracting increasing numbers of people to speak out against the changes.

Speaking on the same panel discussion as Goodman, Michael Copps--one of the two FCC commissioners who voted against the changes--said that of the more than 137,000 letters that the FCC had received as of May 20, all except about 150 were against the proposed rule changes. And on May 29, a coalition of groups staged small protests outside of Clear Channel stations in 14 cities around the country.

The truth is that Congress could still pass a law prohibiting the new FCC rules. But they'll only do it if there's a public outcry big enough to make them take notice. As Goodman concluded, "We have to challenge the powers that be, and that is role of the media."

How Clear Channel bought the airwaves

IN 1996, legislation shepherded through Congress by then-Vice President Al Gore paved the way for a similar monopolization of the radio industry. At the time, FCC Chair Reed Hundt warned that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would allow "a few companies to buy all the radio licenses in the country."

Hundt was right. Since the law passed, Clear Channel Communications has expanded from owning about 40 radio stations in 1995 to approximately 1,200 outlets today--almost 1,000 more than its closest competitor. All told, Clear Channel controls the audience share in 100 of 112 radio markets in the U.S.

The company isn't afraid of throwing its ever-increasing weight around, either. On the night that the bombs began falling on Iraq in March, Amy Goodman said reports that she and fellow journalist Jeremy Scahill were invited to speak at an Ani DiFranco concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to talk about the importance of independent media.

Clear Channel--which owns the venue--threatened to pull the plug on the concert if Goodman or Scahill spoke--or if any political views were expressed from the stage or in the hall.

Clear Channel itself was hardly neutral. Not only did the company ban dozens of left-wing and pro-peace songs from its airwaves, it also sponsored and paid for pro-war marches around the country--and helped engineer a boycott against the Dixie Chicks following singer Natalie Maines' anti-Bush comments.

"A comprehensive fraud"

SALIM MUWAKKIL, a senior editor of In These Times magazine and former columnist for the Chicago Tribune, talked to Socialist Worker about the role of the media in wartime and how independent voices can make themselves heard.

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WHAT IMPACT will the FCC vote have on independent voices being heard in the media?

IT WILL have a devastating effect. It will continue to have--let's put it that way--a devastating effect on non-corporate voices gaining access to the public airwaves and to media in general and to people's consciousness.

That's the really important thing. It maintains the corporate monopoly on being able to feed people's consciousness. I think it will continue to have a devastating effect on access to the media and public airwaves.

DO YOU think that there is a tendency towards self-censorship among journalists in the mainstream media?

ABSOLUTELY. IT'S obvious that the prerogatives of their bosses are transmitted to them. They're rewarded when they do what the boss says. That's a simple kind of equation. But, in addition to that, there was a kind of "enforced conformity," even more than usual.

There was a fear engendered by September 11. I think that fear is being used by the Republicans to maintain their control, but it also has been used by the administration's corporate sponsors. It has also been used to maintain this notion of "loyalty" and "patriotism." I think there is that fear factor, and I think, unfortunately, a lot of journalists have also succumbed to that. It's a very powerful thing.

WHAT ARE the specific instances that stick out in your mind?

MANY, MANY instances. One very prominent right now is the Private Jessica Lynch fraud. But the most important aspect is that every single pretext that was used to mount the war and to invade Iraq was proven fraudulent. And there's very little outrage that's being expressed through media sources about that extensive and comprehensive fraud that was perpetrated on the American people.

There's various instances of how that fraud was done--for example, the toppling of the Saddam statue. Ultimately, it was very clear that that was an orchestrated move perpetrated by people who were literally imported by American forces to that spot to do that. And it was also pulled down by American industrial might--a bulldozer. The soldiers did it--it wasn't the people themselves.

The point is that the media basically joined the production of this war image that the Bush administration wanted to project. The media basically acted as another branch of government, and that was extremely distressing.

In virtually every aspect of the war, it was difficult to find anything that wasn't orchestrated in that way. The "embedded" journalists--they became "in bed" fellows.

Of course, they provided some interesting and fascinating coverage of the viscera and ephemera of life in the military in the desert. But they didn't provide any context. And that's what the American media, unfortunately, prevails in doing. It is unparalleled in that ability to focus on process rather than content.

WHAT DO you think people can do to make sure that alternative voices get an audience?

I THINK people have to be very active. Activists and those people who are concerned and have an understanding of just how important media is can propagate this notion that we are being badly served by a media that is leading us into situations--in our name--and we really have no say or influence.

I think once people understand just how important the media is, they will become more active, and activism can change anything. All of this media--for example, the FCC struggle--is a product of public policy. And public policy can be affected by an inflamed and enlightened electorate. That's what we need to do.

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