To grasp bigness, sometimes you have to take out the magnifying glass. That's what media observers are doing retrospectively with a story that came out of Minot, N.D., in January 2002. The small town was hit with a rail-car leak of anhydrous ammonia, an irritant that can cause serious injuries.
The story had a special media hook: When emergency officials contacted the town's radio stations to get warnings aired, they reportedly found five of six stations were running on taped feeds and couldn't take the call. The five stations were properties of mammoth Clear Channel Communications, which now owns 1,200-plus radio stations nationwide (including WQUE-FM, WYLD-FM, WNOE-FM, KKND-FM, KUMX-FM, WODT-AM and WYLD-AM in New Orleans). Later, Clear Channel said Minot staffers did respond "beyond their professional responsibilities." The company put the blame on "local authorities' failure to install their Emergency Alert System equipment."
Either way, the assumption is that if Minot had more locally owned stations, the public would have been better warned. And beneath this assumption is a rock-bottom belief that federal policy has grown too friendly to media empires.
And that belief explains why we're seeing moves everywhere -- across the whole political spectrum -- to put the reins on media ownership.
The best indication of this trend came a year after Minot, when organizations and ordinary people across the country took a hard look at Washington, D.C. Specifically, they put their magnifying glass to some business before the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. What they found was something like a new species of dinosaur.
By way of background, the five-member FCC is bipartisan by definition -- no more than three members can be from the same political party. But as you'd expect, the Commission has its own internal dynamics. The most-often heard voice is that of Michael Powell, a conservative who was appointed by President Bill Clinton and made FCC chair by President George W. Bush. Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin gravitate to Powell's side. Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are often a minority of two.
Normally a quiet presence, the FCC made headlines last June. Following provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Commission had been debating whether to relax federal limits on media ownership. On the other hand, pressure was building to keep the old rules in place. But on June 2, the Commissioners voted 3-2 to adopt new rules that partially deregulated big chunks of the media industry ("Broadcast Blues," June 10, 2003).
Here are the most important changes, as summarized by the Poynter Institute, an independent organization that trains journalists and analyzes media trends:
· The decision okayed "cross-ownership" of broadcast and print media in markets with more than three TV stations. Cross-ownership was previously banned.
· It said the four national TV networks could buy enough stations to reach 45 percent of the U.S. audience. The old cutoff was 35 percent. (The big companies failed to get a total repeal of the limit.)
· It boosted the number of TV stations a single broadcaster can own in a single market. (The number varies with the size of the market.)
Even before the full impact of this was felt, an outraged public turned up the volume. The FCC received around 2.5 million responses, 99 percent of them opposing the changes.
Advocacy groups sprang into action, too. The Washington-based Media Access Project, a not-for-profit public-interest law firm, succeeded in getting a Philadelphia federal appeals court to issue a stay. "We were the lead law firm," says the Project's deputy director, Cheryl Leanza. "It looks very good, but we're still waiting for the court's decision."
Public outrage at media policy is still high-pitched. But as the months go by, this outrage is being channeled into a national debate about "indecency," "values" and moral policing.
You don't need more details here on l'affaire Janet Jackson, or l'affront Howard Stern. (Well, two relevant details: Stern got stomped by his boss, Infinity Broadcasting, another mega-radio corporation that's a Viacom subsidiary. Also, Clear Channel announced it was cutting him off.) Suffice it to say, we're now watching the FCC, which so recently gave away the store, going after big media corporations on a morals charge.
The talk revolves around penalties: a ten-fold increase in the fine for each on-air indecency, for example. (One proposal in the House of Representatives would increase it twentyfold.)
What will this amount to? "It's still a drop in a bucket," says Russell Newman, research director with the Media Reform/Free Press Network, a not-for-profit based in Northampton, Mass. "Whether it's $27,500 or $275,000, it's just another business expense [for the big companies]," he says.
Newman adds the obvious: Large fines will burden small independents disproportionately -- and thus tilt the playing field even more to mega-corporate advantage.
A more well-founded fear is stalking the land, though. The fear that monster media will put democracy itself at risk.
"A core value in a free society is that control over media should be widespread and diverse," says a statement from the Media Reform/Free Press Network. "In a capitalist society, this value is constantly challenged by the strong desire of businesses to dominate their markets as much as possible."
We the people must understand our controlling interest, so to speak. "Nearly all media markets are based on government-granted and -enforced monopoly privileges and subsidies," says Media Reform, citing "copyright, postal subsidies, monopoly radio and TV licenses, cable TV and satellite TV franchises."
"One can say the media is big business, but one can say truly that media is the biggest business," Newman says. "Ownership of the media has become incredibly consolidated. We're entering an age when a media giant owns not just channels but controls the distribution of those channels." He points to Comcast's recent $50-billion-plus bid to take over the Walt Disney Company -- a move he believes has "dire implications."
Even if that bid goes nowhere, the top corporate players will be thunder lizards indeed. According to a Media Reform chart, based on information from the Columbia Journalism Review, these are some of the dominant corporations: Disney, with $25 billion in revenues in 2002; Viacom, with $25 billion that year; Time-Warner, with $41 billion; and Vivendi Universal, with more than $57 billion. Champ of the revenuers: General Electric, with $132 billion in 2002.
General Electric is a special case, of course. It has immense holdings in energy, transportation, weapons production and much more besides media. But look at the holdings of even a company like Comcast, which folds a mere sports team or two into its corporate pie. According to Media Reform, Comcast, "the nation's largest cable television company" with "a presence in 22 of the 25 largest markets," also owns the Golf Channel, the Style Network, E! Entertainment Television and more.
The scale of things hasn't paralyzed Newman and his group. For one thing, they sponsored a National Conference on Media Reform last November in Madison, Wis. The conference drew unexpectedly large numbers of activists -- and some members of Congress, as well.
Conservatives have been hopping on this train, too. Last year, for example, New York Times columnist William Safire decried the FCC rules changes. He amplified his worries this February, asking, "If one huge corporation controlled both the production and the dissemination of most of our news and entertainment, couldn't it rule the world?"
Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's top gun, said last year that the changes would harm "diversity of political opinion." NRA spokespeople didn't follow through on a promise to comment for this article, however.
An energetic populism -- under the buzzword "localism" -- has hit the road, too. It blossomed, for example, at a March 8 public forum in Rochester, N.Y., convened by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who'd attended the Madison conference.
Rochester is famous for homegrown photo giant Eastman Kodak and less well-known as the old hometown of the now Virginia-based Gannett Company (101 daily newspapers, 22 TV stations, etc.). On the Rochester stage was a panel including owners and directors of independent Rochester media. The main attraction, though, was FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who last June cast one of the two dissenting votes against relaxing the ownership rules.
Outside the forum, Adelstein parses the issues. Last year's national response, he says, "was unprecedented in the 70-plus years of the agency." Moreover, he says, opponents of the new rules included "huge numbers of people from the right and left, the National Rifle Association, the Catholic Conference of Bishops. Everybody thought this was a bad idea."
He also names some members of Congress who have taken up the cause: Reps. Slaughter and Maurice Hinchey, both Democrats from New York state; Ed Markey (D-Mass.); David Price (D-N.C.); Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.); and Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Ted Stevens (R-Ark.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Adelstein says growing concentration will bring "ever less diversity at ever higher prices." He makes some quality judgments, too. "We're concerned about the homogenization of radio," he says. Individual stations "don't have their own news, their own reporters. Very little in-depth coverage. There used to be a lot more of that, but it's expensive." He turns to many small newspapers' prime domestic competitor, Gannett. "They've supported cross-ownership," he says, adding that they got what they wanted.
Significant cases keep coming before the FCC. Adelstein mentions a recent decision: the Commission's nod this January to the merger of News Corp and DirecTV. "I dissented," he says. "Certainly [the deal] is in the shareholders' interest, but we have a broad responsibility to serve the public interest."
Yet the FCC today is construing the public interest more narrowly. It seems the Commission is more concerned about Janet Jackson's breast exposure or Bono's f-wording than almost anything else.
Part of this is the law. Adelstein explains that the Commission's statutory authority over content extends only to what's considered indecent, profane or obscene. "I think the FCC is getting serious about enforcing rules that are on the books to be sure they don't step over the line," he says.
But is this just a distraction, or even a move backward? "It's a good development," Adelstein says -- a proper response to "increasing coarseness over the airwaves."
Some observers take strong exception. For example, liberal commentator and cartoonist Ted Rall recently called the decency crusaders "new McCarthyites" who have resorted to "censoring their opponents." He also slammed The New York Times for dumping his editorial cartoons from its Web site.
In regard to media monsters, the decency crusade may end up demonstrating the old Nietzschean principle dear to radio host G. Gordon Liddy: Whatever doesn't kill them makes them stronger. But dinosaurs of any sort co-exist with pesky critters in the underbrush -- and eventually the more adaptable life forms have their day. Certainly the Internet and Web-based populist efforts such as indymedia.org are carving out space for themselves.
The FCC is looking at such a critter: low-power FM radio. In 2000, the Commission gave the go-ahead to noncommercial stations of 100 watts or less. Then broadcasters complained LPFM would cause too much interference with their signals. "We were forced by Congress to ratchet back," Adelstein says. He adds that the FCC studied the potential for interference and found there wasn't much.
Of course, that's no comment on the political interference that could hamper LPFM for some time. But here again, a mobilized public, aware the airwaves legally belong to everyone, could make the difference.
Jack Bradigan Spula is a staff writer on City Newspaper, the alternative weekly in Rochester, N.Y. City Newspaper editor-publisher Mary Anna Towler was among the panelists on the March 8 public forum in Rochester.