And That's the Way It Is: Loosening Media Ownership-Rules is Bad for America(A)
On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to loosen the rules governing media ownership. As a result, media companies might become even larger and the number of voices heard from in our society even fewer. If the measure of a democracy is in the strength of its voices, America’s voices may soon become a whisper. If that happens, Wall Street would decide what is heard on Main Street and the American democracy would suffer as a result.Under the new rules, it will be possible for a single media company like Clear Channel Communications or News Corp., to buy the dominant newspaper, the local cable-television system, three local television stations and eight radio stations in a single market. In other words, the rules were designed to encourage a massive consolidation of the media industry, and a massive financial windfall for large media companies and Wall Street. It should come as no surprise that the most effective lobbyist for this legislation was a Wall Street media analyst from the investment-banking firm Bear Stearns.For example, these new rules would allow Clear Channel Communications, which owns eight radio stations in San Francisco (KABL-AM 960, K101-FM 101.3,KISQ-FM 98.1,KKSF-FM 103.7, KMEL-FM 106, KNEW-AM 960 and KSJO 98.5 FM) to also own the San Francisco Chronicle, KRON-TV Channel 4 and KTVU-TV Channel 2 as well. Since the electronic media has become the dominant source of information in our society, this would be an awesome responsibility.Proponents promise these new media goliaths can handle this kind of responsibility. Maybe. The reality could be much different. It will take money to finance this media consolidation, and that money will be raised in the capital markets. As a result, programming might reflect the need to make debt payments and otherwise appease Wall Street, not the culturally diverse view points in American society. The need for cash might also make it more likely that news coverage of a story that makes advertisers (or political allies) uncomfortable could be compromised.We’ve already seen examples of how this may look from two companies which stand to benefit greatly from the rules changes. Fox News, owned by News Corp., covered the war in Iraq with a nationalistic fervor. Just as News Corp. removed the BBC News Service from its Chinese satellite package to win favor with the Chinese government. Compare that to Clear Channel’s treatment of the popular country music group the Dixie Chicks. After some members of the band spoke out against the war in Iraq, Dixie Chicks songs were mysteriously dropped from some Clear Channel play lists.Maybe the Dixie Chicks’ absence from the airways had nothing to do with the company’s close ties with the Bush administration. But when Trillium Asset Management Corp. asked Clear Channel if it would create a policy specifically prohibiting their stations from blacklisting artists for their political views, they responded that they would not. Not a very rigorous defense of American ideals and a very short-sighted business strategy. Individual rights and the exchange of information and ideas are the reasons why the capital markets flourished in this country. Diminish either and the markets will suffer as well.When television news supplanted daily newspapers as the country’s number one source of information, networks like CBS considered their news divisions a public service, and journalists like Walter Cronkite were trusted for presenting objective reports of the day’s events. The FCC may have ensured that will never happen again. If that is indeed the case, the FCC brokered a deal that is unacceptable and un-American.And that’s the way it is. But it’s not the way it should be.