Originally published in the Rock River times
By Stephen Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk
In recent years, big media companies have been pressuring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to effectively eliminate the few remaining legal restrictions on their size and power.
The FCC, whose commissioners and staff often depart the agency for high-paid executive positions in the very corporations they used to regulate, have been eager to grant their wish, and have insisted that the regulatory changes demanded by big media are basically sound policy.
Well, the industry-friendly Republican majority at the FCC is at it again, calling for what amounts to the complete elimination of local media ownership rules.
Four years ago, the FCC attempted to adopt a series of controversial media ownership rules that would have expanded the number and types of media outlets—TV stations, radio stations and newspapers—that any one company can own in a single community. The rule changes would have permitted greater concentration of ownership in TV and print media, which, in turn, would have allowed the few remaining media giants to downsize their workforces, increase ad revenues and reuse the same basic content throughout their various print and broadcast outlets.
While all of this promised to be enormously profitable for media giants, the new ownership regulations would have been dismal for everyone else. By consolidating control over our media ever more firmly in the hands of a few already enormously powerful conglomerates, the rules change would have further stifled the diversity of viewpoints available through our culture’s most powerful channels of communication, further limiting the public’s access to local perspectives and unconventional ideas.
But the FCC soon faced a massive and unprecedented public backlash. Three million people wrote letters and sent e-mails opposing the new policies. Concerned citizens held unofficial public hearings and protests nationwide. In the end, Congress voted its disapproval of the FCC’s decision, and an emergency court order temporarily blocked the rule changes. A subsequent court ruling demanded that the FCC start all over and revisit its media ownership policies.
What’s troubling is that this issue keeps coming up despite the FCC’s own findings. In 2002-03, FCC employees found that eliminating ownership rules for radio shrunk the number of radio station owners despite an increase in commercial radio stations. A second study concluded that eliminating TV ownership rules led to reduced local TV news coverage. These findings by their own organization contradicted claims made by now FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and his allies, who were pushing for deregulation. Evidently, senior officials at the agency ordered that all copies of the offending reports be destroyed.
This brings us back to last June, when Martin announced a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making, which relaunched the FCC’s motion to reopen the issue. What hasn’t changed, unfortunately, is the FCC’s preference to change the rules to favor big media and harm everyone else. What has changed considerably is public awareness of the media ownership issue, and the public’s willingness to weigh in on such crucial policy decisions.
Public involvement continues to grow, but more people need to be involved to end this once and for all. Official hearings on the issue have taken place in Los Angeles and Nashville, with standing-room-only attendance. Unofficial hearings on the issue have crisscrossed the country. One coalition group called Stop Big Media has assembled more than 60 local and national-scale organizations.
Just because we defeated these FCC rule changes in the past doesn’t guarantee that we can do so this time, even if Congress appears to be on our side. Anything can happen, and it’s up to the citizens of this country to speak up and try to put an end to the further consolidation of our media.
Macek is an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central College. Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a frequent contributor to assorted Chicago-area independent media efforts in print, Web, radio and television.
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