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The FCC’s Christmas Gift to Big Media

ColumnDecember 29, 2007

On Dec. 18, the five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission met in Washington, D.C., and, by a 3 to 2 vote, passed new regulations that would allow more media consolidation. This, despite the U.S. public’s increasing concern over the nation’s media being controlled by a few giant corporations.

Dissident FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said of the decision: “We generously ask big media to sit on Santa’s knee, tell us what it wants for Christmas, and then push through whatever of these wishes are politically and practically feasible. No test to see if anyone’s been naughty or nice. Just another big, shiny present for the favored few who already hold an FCC license—and a lump of coal for the rest of us. Happy holidays!”

It was Bush-appointed FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, now just 41 years old, who rammed through the rule changes. He has served President Bush well. As deputy general counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000, he was active during the Florida recount. Before that he worked for Kenneth Starr at the Office of Independent Counsel during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Rumor has it that he may run for governor of his native North Carolina. His wife, Cathie Martin, was a spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney in the midst of the scandal around the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. She now works on Bush’s communications staff.

The federal regulation in question is the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban. It has for decades prevented the same company from owning both a television or radio station in a town as well as a newspaper. Underlying this ban is the core concept of the public interest. Copps couldn’t have been clearer: “Today’s decision would make George Orwell proud. We claim to be giving the news industry a shot in the arm—but the real effect is to reduce total newsgathering.” Mergers will result in newsroom layoffs and less, not more, coverage of local issues.

Martin’s new rule is also going to hurt the diversity of the U.S. media. Juan Gonzalez, former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, recently testified at a congressional hearing on media ownership. He said, “Even as our nation has become ever more diverse racially and ethnically … minority ownership of the broadcast companies … has remained at shockingly low levels. … Direct experience has shown us that ownership matters when it comes to … a diversity of voices and meeting the news and information needs of minority communities.”

Gonzalez pointed out that the new rule will allow the 19 minority-owned TV stations in the country’s top 20 cities to be targeted for takeovers by newspapers, further reducing minority ownership.

There is a reason that journalism is the sole profession explicitly protected in the U.S. Constitution. As a check and balance on government, it is essential to the functioning of a democratic society. As Thomas Jefferson famously stated, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

By eliminating the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban, Martin claims to be saving newspapers. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece, he writes: “In many towns and cities, the newspaper is an endangered species. … If we don’t act to improve the health of the newspaper industry, we will see newspapers wither and die.” As Copps pointed out in his scathing dissent to the rule change, “We shed crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers—yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P 500 average.”

The problem facing Martin and his big media friends isn’t that newspapers are unprofitable; it’s that they are simply not as profitable as they used to be. This is in part because of the Internet. People no longer have to rely on the newspaper to post or read classified ads, for example, with free online outlets like Craigslist.

The media system in the United States is too highly concentrated and serves not the public interest but rather the interests of moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone, who controls CBS/Viacom. Media corporations that will benefit from Martin’s handout are the same ones that acted as a conveyor belt for the lies of the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We need a media that challenges the government, that acts as a fourth estate, not for the state. We need a diverse media. The U.S. Congress has a chance to overrule Martin and the FCC, and to keep the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban in place. It should do so immediately, before the consolidated press leads us into another war.

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