Mar 9 2003

Speak Out for Media Democracy

Why isn’t the FCC doing its job?


The FCC & Media Democracy


What if you woke up tomorrow to find that Yosemite National Park had been turned over to Chevron? Or that the Everglades were now under the watchful eye of DuPont? Most people would agree: Giving corporations nearly unlimited control over a precious public resource is unacceptable.

But that’s exactly what we’ve done with our airwaves and media– delivered them into corporate hands.

What have corporate media given us in return? Across the country, programming that addresses local concerns is almost non-existent. Dissenting political viewpoints are routinely marginalized in mainstream media, and the interests and perspectives of women, people of color, labor, environmentalists, disabled people, and lesbians, gays and bisexuals are consistently underrepresented.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is supposed to make sure media serve the public, but all too often it works hand in glove with the industries it’s supposed to watchdog. Crucial communications policy is being made with little public debate, and the results are no surprise: a flood of media mergers that threaten independent journalism and weaken our democracy.

Why isn’t the FCC doing its job?

The FCC regulates interstate communications that run over radio, TV, wire, satellite or cable. Its authority is based on the idea that its decisions will serve the “public interest, convenience or necessity.” The public owns the airwaves that radio and TV stations use and profit from. Media companies are allowed to use them on the condition that they serve the public; it’s part of the FCC’s job to enforce that.

The FCC’s record of standing up for the public has rarely been impressive. Under the leadership of free market zealot Michael Powell, the agency seems to have given up even trying. Shortly after his appointment as chair, a reporter asked Powell what the public interest is. Powell replied, “I have no idea.”

Media giants love Powell– the Nation Association of Broadcasters called him “an outstanding choice.” The affection seems to be mutual, with Powell referring to broadcast corporations as “our clients,” denouncing regulation as “the oppressor,” and proudly stating ”my religion is the market.”

What’s happening to our media?

Telecommunications deregulation is proceeding with dizzying speed, enabling a parade of media mergers that have concentrated the power of the press into fewer and fewer corporate hands. Because the FCC’s rulemaking process is obscure and poorly publicized, regulations are often rewritten or dropped with almost no public input.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996– essentially bought and paid for by corporate media lobbies– opened the floodgates on mergers. Ironically, consolidation has been most profound in radio, a medium ideally suited to local ownership and diverse content. The damage to radio diversity is staggering: Over 4,000 radio stations have been bought out since the Telecom Act, and minority ownership of TV stations has dropped to its lowest point since the federal government began tracking such data in 1990.

One by one, we’ve lost protections against media monopoly. Gone are the rules that prevented one TV network from buying another, that said a network couldn’t own two stations in the same city and that kept one company from owning TV stations and cable franchises in a single market. Internet diversity is at risk, too: The FCC recently ruled that cable companies can provide Internet access over their broadband lines without opening them to competitors. This increases the likelihood that the Internet will grow to resemble cable TV, where content is controlled by a handful of interconnected firms.

But big media still isn’t satisfied. Broadcasters are now pushing for an end to cross-ownership rules, which are all that prevent newspapers from being absorbed by the broadcast industry. And thanks to the FCC’s complacency, the rule that bars a company from owning TV stations which reach more than 35% of U.S. households seems to be on its way out.

In short, the FCC is helping corporations to carve up the media landscape for private profit.

Media consolidation hurts democracy

There’s nothing natural or inevitable about the profit-driven corporate media system we have today. In fact, big business has fought hard for it, spending billions of dollars to marginalize more democratic alternatives and squelch public debate.

Consolidation tends to result in newsroom layoffs, budget cuts and a web of conflicts of interest for reporters, who are often employed by the same companies they’re supposed to cover. Journalism as a public service? Forget it. News becomes just another commodity that’s expected to turn a profit.

The media industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, too. Take campaign finance reform, which has garnered support across the political spectrum, but is opposed by many media companies. Why? Much of the money raised for political campaigns is given to corporate media to buy advertising. According to the Center for Public Integrity, big media spent nearly $11 million from 1996-1998 to defeat bills mandating free airtime for candidates. The Alliance for Better Campaigns estimates that broadcasters earned at least $771 million from political TV ads in 2000, almost double the 1996 revenues. Broadcasters work the other side of the game as well, donating millions of dollars in “soft money” to the major political parties.

Democracy requires independent, critical and genuinely representative media. Without them, citizens lose the means to participate in the debate that sets the political agenda. Yet there’s little public discussion of media policy. After all, where would it occur? The mass media would be a perfect venue-but don’t hold your breath.

Take back the media! Take back democracy!

Public awareness that corporate media have failed us increases day by day. That’s why people are taking to the streets to reopen the debate over who should control this precious resource. The so-called “War on Terror”– and the chilling of dissent that has come with it– makes the struggle for a vital and diverse press more crucial than ever.

Media activism is taking off across the country– people are challenging deregulation in the courts, starting low power FM radio stations in their communities, forming networks to watchdog the corporate press, and integrating media reform into larger issues like the fight against corporate globalization. To learn more about these issues and join our international network of media activists, check out FAIR’s website, On Internet issues, the Center For Digital Democracy is a great resource: And for grassroots reporting, visit the Independent Media Center, Get involved!