The FCC is poised to unleash big media, paving the way for the ProJo’s corporate parent to buy a TV station in Rhode Island
BY IAN DONNIS
The media have been MIA when it comes to covering the most sweeping changes to media ownership in decades
IT’S A SAD IRONY that the run-up to the Federal Communication Commission’s anticipated June 2 vote in favor of media deregulation — regarded as the broadest and most significant change to such rules in a generation — has attracted a meager level of media attention.
It’s not that the information isn’t available. Some national news organizations, including the New York Times and National Public Radio, have made an effort to cover the story. Web sites for media geeks, like www.journalism.org, the online home for the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists, include roundups of related stories from trade publications, online periodicals like Slate and Salon, and mainstream newspapers. The FCC’s own site, www.fcc.gov, details the stances of the commission’s five members. And the activist groups that have been rallying opposition to the deregulation vote —including www.moveon.org, the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org), the Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org) and Free Press (www.mediareform.net) — feature a trove of useful information on their respective Web sites.
The problem, of course, is that unless most people deliberately seek the details of this story — which has been ignored by television news — they’re not going to find it. Even the majority of those who read a daily paper like the Times or Providence Journal — which included a less-than-probing examination of the pending FCC vote in a May 25 story about publicly held companies that impact Rhode Island — probably have little sense of the matter or its magnitude. As a result, most people are far more familiar with distractions like American Idol and the serial killer case in Louisiana than the broader trends that touch their lives.
As Frank Rich wrote in the Times on May 25, "The networks’ various productions of "Countdown: Iraq," though as ponderous as The Matrix Reloaded, were so effective that by the time we went to war, 51 percent of the country, according to a Knight-Ridder poll, believed that Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers. It took the bloody re-emergence of Qaeda terrorists in Riyadh two weeks ago to recover the repressed memories that none of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqis and that most of them were Saudis." Rich aptly compared the virtual blackout of news about the FCC vote, by the five companies that control most of the mass media, to how "the ruling machines in The Matrix do not feed their captive humans any truths that might set them free."
Or as put by H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, "They [the media] have not made this a story. They hoped it would slide in under the radar. The same was true of the Telecommunications Act of 1996" — which, among other things, enabled broadcasters to chalk up big profits by obtaining additional bandwidth — a public resource — and then leasing it out to cell phone companies.
Adds West, "The fact that the public is not aware of these intricate commercial exchanges doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. I think you can make the argument that one of the reasons why we haven’t had healthcare reform is because drug companies make so much from television advertising," and channel a chunk of the revenue back to Congress in the form of campaign contributions. "Where’s the public interest? It gets lost."
MAKING THE Providence Journal Company into a tempting target for acquisition by an out-of-state corporation was probably the last thing that Michael P. Metcalf would have wanted.
Metcalf, the last in a line of affluent local Yankees to oversee the Providence Journal, pumped an unusually large percentage of money back into the newspaper during his tenure as publisher from 1979-87. But he inexorably set the course for the present moment by overseeing the purchase of a string of television stations and other businesses, transforming what had been a powerful — but distinctly local — newspaper company into a mini media empire with a potpourri of out-of-state assets.
The former publisher, who died after a 1987 bicycle accident, couldn’t have predicted, of course, that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would greatly accelerate the trend toward media consolidation, in part by removing the limit on the number of television stations — 12 — that a single company could own. Within a year, however, the Dallas-based Belo Corporation vaulted into the big league of US media corporations by buying the Journal Company and its nine television stations for $1.5 billion.
Now, the next shoe is about to drop. On Monday, June 2, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to significantly weaken restrictions on media ownership, including a long-standing prohibition on cross-ownership, the ability of a company to own a newspaper and television station in the same market. And it’s hardly a stretch to think that Belo would like to complement the dominance of the ProJo — which has traditionally enjoyed an unusually high degree of statewide penetration and influence — by acquiring a television station in Rhode Island.
Many observers, such as Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, expect the FCC vote to dramatically change the media landscape — for the worse. Says Jones, "There will be few, if any, towns in America where the local newspaper and the major — or a major — television station are not owned by the same company." If Belo buys a TV station in Rhode Island, "you’ll have an information behemoth even larger than you do now." And although cross-ownership is not necessarily a bad thing in every instance, "Combining a television station with a newspaper in a place like Rhode Island means that it will be like Snow White and the seven dwarves."
ProJo publisher Howard Sutton and Belo spokesman Scott Baradell didn’t return calls seeking comment. But in a May 26 piece in the New York Times, Belo chairman and chief executive Robert W. Decherd was among a handful of media kingpins who predicted that the FCC vote will trigger less consolidation than anticipated. "There is a belief on the part of some people in the financial community that there are tremendous opportunities and revenue opportunities associated with cross-ownership," Decherd said. "That is just not correct."
The Times story indicated, however, that most large media companies — including Belo — "say that they expect some targeted deals in specific markets." And Belo has been less disinterested in the run-up to the FCC vote than Decherd’s remarks might suggest. After previously opposing another proposed change — raising to 45 percent the amount of national television households that one corporation can reach — Belo abruptly backed the increase after an April meeting with FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell and his staff. According to a May 8 letter sent to Powell by US Representative John Dingell of Michigan and three other congressmen, Belo indicated its stance was made "in return for favorable commission action" on other FCC matters. In his letter to Powell, Dingell wrote, "To say the least, we are puzzled by Belo’s sudden interest in the national ownership cap, and greatly dismayed by Mr. Decherd’s suggestion that you should raise the cap ‘in return for’ favorable action on an unrelated matter."
Meanwhile, although the ProJo has had minimal news coverage of the pending FCC vote, a March 16 editorial, which energetically endorsed the move toward greater media deregulation, seemed as if it could have been piped directly from Dallas: "The issue should not become a Trojan horse for private political agendas. The sole issue is whether the public interest is served fairly. There’s ample evidence that it is being served."
Such sentiments would certainly be backed by Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who contends that existing restrictions on media ownership are outdated and an impediment to greater public benefits. But even if technological advances might be gleaned from some elements of deregulation, it’s difficult to see how the vast majority of people will benefit from the further consolidation of the news media — which has hardly been constrained in recent decades. In fact, since the 1983 publication of Ben Bagdikian’s landmark critique, The Media Monopoly, the number of corporations that dominate the mass news and entertainment media has diminished with each edition, from 50 to six. It’s no wonder that critics across the ideological spectrum — ranging from former Nixon speechwriter William Safire and the National Rifle Association to left-liberal activist groups like Code Pink — describe continued consolidation as antithetical to a diversity of opinions and harmful to American democracy.
As FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein sees it, only those with something to gain, namely investment bankers and big media employees, are supportive of the move toward greater deregulation. Last week, Adelstein told the Media Institute, a Washington nonprofit, that in holding hearings across the country with the other Democrat on the five-member FCC, "Not one person stood up to say, ‘I want to see even more concentration in our media ownership.’ Not one. And that’s what we see in the comments pouring in to the FCC — virtually none from the public say, ‘Please, let big media companies get bigger — I can’t wait to see what they’ll produce with all those economies of scale.’ "
This kind of public opinion is important, Adelstein continued, "[Because] the FCC is charged by law to serve the public interest. And the public has zero interest in seeing media conglomerates grow bigger. The public knows instinctively what the FCC is supposed to do — protect them from large entities gaining too much control over channels of communication. A majority of five unelected bureaucrats shouldn’t substitute their own judgment — or the judgment of self-interested corporate CEOs — for the protection of the American people."
Such concerns notwithstanding, the proposed changes — which have attracted virtually no attention on television and little sustained scrutiny outside of such sources as the New York Times and Washington Post — seem virtually assured of moving forward since Republicans on the FCC enjoy a three-to-two advantage and are unwilling to delay the June 2 vote.
Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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