The Supreme Court has done a lot of rotten things lately, but on April Fool's Day 2021 (no joke!) the court gave its unanimous approval to the FCC-approved reversal of a series of media ownership rules. That reversal, despite got barely any media coverage -- indeed, you're probably learning about that now for the first time.
There's a lot here to explain, and some history to revisit. Let's begin.
First of all, what's media concentration? Very simply: It's the relationship between the number and types of media outlets and the number of owners in a given media environment. If there are a lot of owners, there's less concentration than an environment with more media outlets owned by fewer owners.
Why care about media concentration? Why does it matter? Why is a concentrated media environment bad?
It is bad, for a lot of reasons. For example, in Chicago Media Action's own landmark analysis of the television show "Chicago Tonight", we write:
The "unmistakable impact" of media concentration, according to professor Mark Cooper, is loss of information of local importance, and the loss of local voices in the media discourse.
The best book-length treatment on the topic of media concentration that I know of, though it's now eighteen years old, is The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian. In a presentation on the history of American media which I gave in 2011, I cited Bagdikian's work and gave a paragraph-long exposition of the negative effects of media concentration:
"Bagdikian and many others also chronicled the negative consequences of such concentration: increased commercialism, less journalism, less independence from the bottom-line, more conflicts of interest, fewer diverse perspectives, and even life-or-death situations, as was the case in the city of Minot, North Dakota, which in 2002 saw a chemical leak from a train derailment cause hundreds to be hospitalized and when local police tried to get on the radio to alert the public, they found six of the seven Minot radio stations controlled from a single Clear Channel [radio] office which was unstaffed at the time of the leak."
Why does media concentration happen? I also explain that in the same talk, with a particular focus on why media concentration has been happening "lately" (that is, within the past four decades):
The raison d'etre was, as usually is, profit -- more profit can be generated by producing content once and then redistributing it across all one's channels, so then [from the 1980s on] a race was underway to consolidate media across industries, aided by zealots in government subscribing to supposed "free market" principles but instead aiding and abetting the greatest media monopolies heretofore seen.
Congress and the FCC had implemented limits on media ownership over the latter half of the twentieth century, but from the Reagan administration on the corporate-powered neoliberal movement, under the rubric of "deregulation", sought to undo these rules and increase media concentration as a result. The neoliberals had been steadily achieving more and more success, and an ever-worse media environment for the public.
In 2002, pro-Neoliberal Republicans were in command in the White House, in Congress, and in the FCC. Plus, a recent court ruling required the FCC to justify its ownership rules or effectively eliminate them. The FCC, had announced in September 2002 to nary any coverage that it was going to review its media ownership rules. All parties expected the FCC to severely water down the rules to the point of ineffectiveness.
At the same time, media activists from across America were increasingly entering the fray. Indeed, the same week that the FCC announced its ownership rule rewrite, I attended a meeting of five activists as part of the Chicago Media Watch "Political Action Committee" where we reviewed what was happening and what we could do about it. This was months before the founding of what became Chicago Media Action, and CMA was founded with the intent of becoming a Chicago-centric version of the national media watch group FAIR (to critique media coverage). But given the urgency of the media ownership issue and what the FCC was poised to do, CMA became a Chicago-centric version of the national media policy group Free Press (to affect media policy).
We dove into the work from September 2002 to September 2003 to rouse awareness and interest into what was about to happen. We helped organize the unofficial hearing in Chicago, at Northwestern law school. We organized other events, wrote up, spoke up, use the internet (I quickly set up a CMA website), and got on radio (those stations that would let us talk about the matter, in any event). This came with an upsurge in interest in media ownership, buttressed to no small extent by the 2003 escalation of the War in Iraq. Despite unparalleled antiwar protest, coverage of antiwar opposition was dismissive and nonexistent, and folks who opposed the war were channeled into opposing bad media policy.
On June 2, 2003, to no surprise the FCC by a 3-2 vote approved its rewrite of the media ownership rules, but to great surprise the public interest and outrage on the matter was enormous. The issue of media ownership ranked as the second-most discussed issue in Congress in 2003, trailing only the War in Iraq. In September, an emergency court order was filed in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia by the Prometheus Radio Project. The court recognized that the widespread public outrage should matter, and blocked the FCC's rule rewrite.
That was a big decision -- so big that on the date of September 4, 2003, it immediately earned front-page newspapers headlines and premiere news coverage. Billions of dollars in media ownership deals were "cocked and loaded", ready to implement once the rules were put into effect, and which were now blocked. It was also the first domino in a cascading series of events that helped fell the Tribune Corporation, which went from vying to be a top-10 media empire before the loss, to facing a series of embarrassing follow-up losses in court, to facing a shareholder revolt, to an ownership change, to the largest media bankrupcy in American history, to a breakup and selloff to two different companies, one of whom is notorious for driving newspapers to oblivion.
The court case of Prometheus v. FCC returned to the spotlight four years later when the FCC again revisited its media ownership rules. The result, after seven official hearings, was more of the same -- irking both industry and activists. What's more, the FCC in a revised Prometheus case, lost again in court, and because of the ongoing action there were no media ownership reviews from the FCC in 2010 or 2014.
But in 2017, the FCC of Trump appointee Ajit Pai, went ahead with a rewrite of the media ownership rules in favor of Big Media. There were still the outstanding blocks from the Third Circuit, and the FCC filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, which then agreed to hear the case in early 2021. The Supreme Court given its right-wing orientation voted in favor of the gutting of the media ownership rules, but the ruling wasn't 5-4 or 6-3, it was unanimous, 9-0.
The corporate media responded with glee -- in its press releases on the matter if not in its coverage which was negligible. The FCC proceeded to revise its media ownership rules accordingly. (Interestingly, at this writing, the FCC's own guide on broadcast ownership rules doesn't reflect the Supreme Court order.) It was, on its face, a scathing rebuke of the activism that won the day in 2003 -- the corporate media with their allies at the FCC and the Supreme Court could claim victory at long last.
But was it a victory? After all, the media ownership landscape in 2003 is markedly different from that in 2021 or 2022. In 2003, there was no doubt about it: the major media were salivating at the prospective rule changes, with massive deals slated to transpire in a matter or weeks or months after the ruling was locked in, and everyone would have known about it after the fact and after it was too late to stop.
But in 2021, what was the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling? My read of the situation is that in 2021 in the wake of the ruling, there was no massive wave of consolidation that transpired. The Congressional Research Office's 2021 report on media ownership, updated two months after the Supreme Court ruled on Prometheus, made no such reference to a consolidation wave. Instead, after the ruling we still hear the same nonstop incessant whining from the corporate media for -- you guessed it -- changing the media ownership rules to allow for more concentration, this time billed as improvements of "economies of scale" rather than the faded "deregulation", to fight the major tech giants.
The environment has certainly changed in the past two decades. The biggest change is the rise of the tech giants -- in particular, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Today, each of those four firms have a market capitalization greater than the market capitalization of all American radio and television broadcasters combined, and it's not even close. Those four companies are steadily encroaching their way into the major media landscape, and can simply wait out their broadcast opposition and/or buy them out (as for example with Amazon's ownership of MGM and the Washington Post).
This is not to belittle the fears of media justice and media reform advocates of increased concentration in these media. Lots of people still watch television, listen to radio, and read newspapers, and despite the inroads that the itech giants have made on the scene, the reliance on "legacy" media for news remains steady, as the Pew Research Center has shown. Plus, as we've seen, these tech giants are not benevolent entities -- they could become the media and information gatekeepers for the next generation, and in a very real sense they already are.
Which leads to our final question here -- did all that work, which crystallized in the media ownership uprising of 2003, matter in the long run? Even if we did succesfully fight off worse media consolidation in the past, are we just doomed to a new corporate dictatorship?
In response, I'll say this: In the work during the media ownership uprising, our main focus was on working to stop the threats we could foresee; we weren't thinking about anything else. And really, that's all anyone can ask for. We're encouraged in that we're in a "critical juncture", where our actions have many multiples of impacts than outside of such juncture. But critical junctures aside, you and I have an obligation to do what we can with what we have where and when we are, regardless the circumstance.
There's no sense in wasting time trying to predict the future; we can shape the future through our actions, large and small, and we worked nonstop in the media ownership uprising. As Bob Harris said -- Democracy is more than what you do in a voting booth on a Tuesday in November, it's what you do with your hands and with your heart and with your head every day all year long.
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