Big Media: A Response to the Chicago Tribune

Posted by Mitchell - February 23, 2004 (entry 152)

(originally published in Third Coast Press, January 2004)

On August 6, 2003, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial headlined "Big Media Confusion Reigns", which advocated support for the now-infamous FCC ownership deregulation efforts. Since then, the Tribune has not published a contrary opinion on the subject. In case you thought no contrary opinion existed, I present this rebuttal. (Actual quotes from the editorial are in italics.)

Tribune: It isn't ofen that the National Organization for Women, the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Assocation find themselves on the same side. They have been mobilized by an unlikely debate over how many eyes and ears one company can reach by owning television sol otations.

It's a lot more than just these three groups. It's a movement of many different activist organizations such as Free Press and Prometheus Radio, coupled with a citizen response of unprecedented proportions in which nearly all have come out against deregulation.

Tribune: Pressure from those organizations and others has convinced the U.S. House to vote to roll back the Federal Communications Commission's effort to reduce government control over the news media.

Don't forget the Senate -- we didn't expect that Resolution of Disapproval or that harsh Senate Commerce Committee interrogation of the FCC two days after the deregulation vote. And it's not just the news media at issue; it's the array of media in the United States. Don't bad mouth "government control", either; the Tribune Company won a historic government hearing over radio spectrum use against the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Tribune: Has this debate gotten overwrought? Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) characterized the FCC action as the "attempted giveaway of the public airways to national media giants based in New York or L.A." Yes, that's overwrought.

Absolutely. How dare Obey forget about the national media giant in Chicago! Obey was probably also "overwrought" when he complained about the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, noting "Why should we care? It's only the Constitution."

Tribune: One would think the FCC had just sold to Viacom the rights to every channel on every television set in your house, and thrown in your microwave, too. In fact, what happened is fairly limited.

Um, five of the six ownership regulations at issue were changes on June 2. If an 83 percent attrition rate is "limited", I wonder what the Tribune would consider "extreme". Moreover, these rule changes permitted a single firm to own a greater number of media properties, which opened the door to a single company owning all of the media in a single city.

Tribune: Federal rules have prohibited any company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of U.S. households. A new FCC rule will allow a company to own stations that reach up to 45 percent.

...which in reality could be as high as 70 percent, given an exception on ownership of UHF stations.

Tribune: Federal rules have prohibited a company from owning a newspaper and a TV outlet in the same city. The FCC will allow a company to own both.

The Tribune has been lobbying heavily for this rule's appeal, and one key reason is because the Tribune is already violating the rule in Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, and Hartford, Conn. In Hartford, the Tribune owns the Hartford Courant and two Hartford TV stations. The Connecticut Attorney General has publicly threatened to bring an antitrust suit against the Tribune.

Tribune: There. Are you hyperventilating yet?

It's curious that you mention breathing patterns. The people of Minot, North Dakota found it hard to breathe one night in January 2003 after a chemical train spill made breathing dangerous, forcing 300 hospitalizations and one death. Police couldn't inform the populace of the danger in time because the emergency broadcast system was down. When they tried to alert people by radio, they ran into a serious problem. All of Minot's radio stations were owned and run by a single Clear Channel office, un-staffed at the time of the spill. Maybe if their media was a bit more diverse, Minot residents could have breathed easier that night.

Incidentally, some folks do seem to be hyperventilating. The House has passed a bill that would restore the 35 percent cap, while the Senate Commerce Committee approved a measure to restore the cap and the newspaper/TV cross-ownership ban.

There are a number of other legislative avenues being pursued in addition to pending lawsuits and a court-ordered stay against the rules on September 3, 2003 -- one day before the rules would have gone into effect. And don't forget the growing media democracy movement.

Tribune: The House and Senate may be inclined to restore some government authority over newspapers and TV stations. But that won't achieve what the critics of the FCC say they want, which is more diversity in media.

There's that line again about "government authority", assuming it's an either/or situation. Remember, there is always regultion in media; the only question is, whose interests are being served? At least you're right about these rules not ensuring greater diversity, but you have to stop the bleeding before you apply a salve.

Tribune: Contrary to Obey's contention, a 45 percent cap on ownership has nothing to do with a "giveaway of public airwaves to media giants." There's no evidence that the FCC's votto allow a marginal expansion of a network or a station ownership group would hurt competition or the diversity of voices -- or even substantially affect TV programming decisions.

So you'd like to make every media consumer a guinea pig in this possibly-irreversible experiment just to see if networks expand, competition improves, diversity blossoms and TV programming is affected? Just because I don't have evidence of potential harm doesn't mean I can't say no. It's called the "precautionary principle".

Tribune: It is clear, however, that the consolidation of ownership of media outlets has become a proxy for a broader discontent. It seems to reflect concerns about what is shown on the TV stations more than what company owns them.

Right. So ownership has no impact whatsoever on media content. Don't let me stand in the way of finding someone who belives you.

Tribune: The various groups urging the House to reject the FCC rule expressed their discontent with current TV programming as being too violent, too libertine, too conservative, or too liberal. People may be nervous about Big Media, but it seems what they're angry about is Bad TV.

It's much more than just "Bad TV". Have you turned on your radio in the last seven years? In a few years, that dead canary could represent the entirety of our media environment.

Tribune: Big Media isn't really all that big, at least in terms of ownership. Viacom, which owns CBS, has TV stations that reach 39 percent of the country. Fox stations reach 38 percent. GE, which owns NBC, has 34 percent coverage. Disney's ABC reaches 24 percent. Tribune Co., which owns this newspaper and has supported the new FCC rules, has stations that reach 30 percent of the nation.

Even if you accept this argument, that's just TV we're talking about. These firms have their mits in music, movies, publishing, cable, TV, radio, and the Internet. Take all of their aggregate property across all sectors and there are only two words to describe it: Big Media.

Tribune: The ubiqutous nature of network TV programming comes from the sales of such programming to stations owned by other companies. The major networks reach nearly the entire country through such sales, and do so regardless of an ownership cap. It has been that way for decades. But the networks have also been losing market share in recent years, as the programming options provided by hundreds of cable outlets have taken away viewers.

No problemo. Just diversify your media holdings into other lucrative arenas, like Vivendi Universal going into water privatization or General Electric going into nuclear energy.

Tribune: The FCC rules don't deal with content. "Some say the problem is media concentration and point out that only five companies control 80 percent of what we see and hear. In reality, those five companies own only 25 percent of more than 300 broadcast, satellite and cable channels, but because of their popularity, 80 percent of the viewing audience chooses to watch them," FCC Chairman Michael Powell recently wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed essay.

I see. So I guess technology makes political power irrelevant, and we live in the best (and most liberal) of all possible media worlds. But if that's so, why did one survey say 70 percent of Americans think there's a Saddam Hussein/9-11 connection despite all evidence to the contrary? You're using a debating technique: Repeat the same tired argument loud enough and long enough, and it'll have to come true.

Tribune: "Popularity is not synonymous with monopoly," he wrote. "A competitive media marketplace must be our fundamental goal, but do we really want government to regulate what is popular?" The answer to that, of course, is no.

Popularity is not a criterion. If popularity matters, why do we have commercials? After all, almost nobody likes commercials and studies show people go out of their way to avoid them (except for the Super Bowl, because the actual game is usually much worse).

Tribune: Bob Wright, the head of NBC, believes there is a notion afoot that if the networks are barred from buying local stations, the stations will somehow become locally owned and therefore more responsive to the local community. But that's not what happens. Stations owners, regardless of size or where they are based, "are in the business of appealing to their local audiences," Wright said in a recent Wall Street Journal essay.

Wrong. Media owners are first and foremost in the business of appealing to advertisers, usually big companies. And locality doesn't have to be a concern for station owners. Just ask Lowry Mays, the head of Clear Channel (which owns 1,200 "local" radio stations around the country).

Tribune: If no one watches, after all, ad rates fall and the station doesn't make money.

And in your magical Happyland where there is such a thing as a truly competitive market, that would mean the company fails. In the real world, we have a half a dozen media giants with revenue streams from every corner of the globe. So if one station suffers, it's no big deal. They've got rams from revenue streams from movies, music, the Internet, and on and on.

Tribune: Wright also pointed out something that should be obvious in Congress. If NBC can't buy a station in a desireable market because doing so would exceed the FCC cap, "the owner is unlikely to be a small, locally based company. It will instead be a large, diversified media company like Belo, Gannett, Hearst-Argyle, Scripps or the Washington Post. For that matter, prohibiting newspapers from buying TV stations in the local market often effectively blocks one source of local ownership. Does that mean anything? Yes. A study for the Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at local news on 172 ations over five years. The research found that TV stations owned by companies that owned newspapers in the market generally produced better, more informative newscasts than other stations in the market. They focused more on community issues and provided a wider mix of opinions.

Funny that you mention the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It held another study, which found that before the June 2 FCC ruling, 72 percent of Americans hadn't even heard of the media ownership debate. Could it be that the 172 local news stations hadn't been covering this issue over the last five years?

Tribune: So what's driving this backlash against the FCC rules? Perhaps conservatives think they can take Dan Rather down a notch. Perhaps liberals see a chance to slap at Bill O'Reilly. (Note to liberals: Since O'Reilly's Fox News Channel is a cable outlet, it is beyond the reach of the rules.)

It's laughable to think that Dan Rather is a standard-bearer for liberals. Dan Rather offered to "line up" behind George W. Bush in the days after 9/11, and wasn't shy about it.

Tribune: Somehow, people have gotten worried about Big Media.

Yeah, isn't that weird. Could it be because of the unprecedented media democracy movement, which, after years of struggle, finally got on the map in 2003? Could it also be the work of a couple of courageous commissioners at the FCC who went from city to city (including Chicago) to bring the issue to a greater audience? Nah. Couldn't be that.

Tribune: Consolidation of media? This is a golden age for media diversity through broadcast TV, cable and satellite TV, broadcast radio, satellite radio, Internet radio, newspapers, magazines, Webzines, Weblogs and everything else. This nation has never experienced a more glorious, rambunctious, free-wheeling era of free expression.

You have more outlets, but fewer owners and increased concentration, and thus less diversity. If diversity was a hallmark in our media, why was an unparalleled peace movement working against the 2003 war on Iraq kept to the fringes of our media?

Tribune: Rolling back the FCC rules wouldn't enhance that. It would, though, leave some newspapers and TV outlets in a more precarious situation, restricted by the government when they face the most intense competition in communications this nation has ever seen.

Competition? That's what has big media scared. Our media is not anything close to a competitive environment. If they faced anything remotely like real competition, they'd be exposed in a heartbeat for the sham that they have become.

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