Knowing when to keep quiet

June 2, 2003

The media often air their dirty laundry in public, as the flap over reporting fraud reminds us. But that’s just the newsroom sheets and towels. Picking through linen from the media’s corporate suites, that’s another matter, altogether more discreet.

Consider the sparse coverage of the Federal Communications Commission’s plans to weaken safeguards against broadcasting monopoly.

“We are on the eve of the most sweeping and potentially most destructive overhaul of ownership laws in the history of American broadcast — and most people have no idea what’s about to happen to them and their media,” Jonathan Adelstein, one of two dissident commissioners, told a recent Atlanta gathering.

As of last week the FCC’s three-member Republican majority still wouldn’t say precisely what they plan. Being ruled by political hacks means they don’t tell you much, especially when their allies spare them the bother of appearing on Capitol Hill.

This week the FCC is expected to gut cross-ownership restrictions that deter companies from owning TV stations and daily newspapers in the same markets. That way, local print monopolies can become powerful broadcasters, and TV-owning giants will become press lords without relinquishing any electronic holdings.

Also, the FCC would allow the same company to own three TV stations in big markets, and a single broadcaster will be permitted to reach 45 percent of the U.S. population, up from 35 percent. (In reality, thanks to a sleight of hand that discounts audiences of UHF stations, the new cap could actually be 90 percent.)

Who’ll benefit? The same worthies that have already turned your 100-plus channels into such a cultural treasure.

Viacom, which owns CBS, could buy more stations. Ditto Disney, with ABC, and General Electric’s NBC. And AOL Time Warner. Media General and Paxson Communications. And Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., whose mouth-breathing Fox News is such an administration favorite that it already exceeds the current cap.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, a politico whose dad is secretary of state, embraces the neoliberal line that the oh-so free market these giants control should be left alone. Monopoly? We have lots of channels now, even if many have the same owners.

Still, the changes drew intense opposition. Some 97 percent of the comment the FCC received is hostile. Opponents fear seeing ever more of the country’s media in fewer hands. They note Clinton-era radio deregulation enabled Clear Channel to grow from 40 to 1,225 stations, and essentially destroyed local radio.

Opponents — from feminist pacifists to the Conference of Catholic Bishops to Common Cause to creative artists to pro-family activists — have filed an astonishing 20,000 protests to the FCC. Thousands more came from National Rifle Association members who believe media giants are anti-gun.

All that heat over plans 72 percent of the public knows nothing about, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press.

“There has been a thundering silence in the broadcast media,” observed a Consumers Union official. An ABC News report May 15 was the only broadcast news coverage of the proposals, Reuters reported last week.

Chairman Powell allowed one hearing, in February, in media capital Richmond, Va. “None of the networks covered the event,” online magazine Salon reported, “nor did the cable outlets, and neither did the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, the Hartford Courant, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, the Atlanta Constitution, the Miami Herald, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Arizona Republic, the San Diego Tribune, the Portland Oregonian, the Denver Post, the Kansas City Star, the Indianapolis Star or the Detroit Free Press.”

Newspaper chains from the New York Times Co., to Tribune Co. to Gannett to Belo oppose the cross-ownership ban. Reporters don’t normally build careers by defying the people who sign their paychecks.

True, there’s been coverage. This column draws from 38 stories in 18 publications or web sites.

But that doesn’t mean the media did their job. That job includes insisting that policy change of such potential consequence belongs high on a national agenda of public concerns.

Maybe reporters, like all of us, are so conditioned to believe in the almighty marketplace that they can’t imagine a broadcasting system organized around needs — not just market niches.

Consider: Of hundreds of cable channels, is there even one for people without money? Just one for the tens of millions who are paid badly and have little. It might let them speak, advise them how to shop, cook, deal with landlords, forage for better jobs, stretch their dollars.

Is there a network for the disabled? One for the mentally ill, the elderly, for immigrants? All huge audiences with enormous needs, people who are marginal in one respect only: spending power.

Instead we have an explosion of shabby micro-networks, really electronic factory outlets.

Never, until the advent of broadband cable and satellite, has so miraculous a communications technology been turned so mindlessly to the sole purpose of moving merchandise, with so little thought of betterment, of service, of alternatives.

Alerting us to those alternatives is the media’s job. Too bad their owners had better things for them to do.

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