Where is the public interest in the media?
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell likes to compare the airwaves to a flea market where buyers and sellers haggle over invisible ions as if bargaining down a pair of Cabbage Patch dolls. "In the past, the Commission tried to promote localism by requiring broadcasters to air certain kinds of programming that it believed was in the public interest," he told a Charlotte, North Carolina audience at an October 22 localism hearing. "Over time, however, the media environment became more competitive, and past FCCs have relied more on free markets to ensure that citizens received the programming they wanted."
The airwaves, which belong to the public, should not be subject to the vicissitudes of the market. Radio and TV stations receive corporate welfare - free use of the airwaves - with the stipulation that the stations will serve the local interest.
Yet the government's laissez-faire attitude toward media ownership has produced 200 channels of homogenized news, shoot-'em-up TV programs, moronic reality shows, and pro-administration propaganda disguised as news coverage. As media ownership has become more concentrated, localism has nearly disappeared: For example, consultants in Denver determine what music radio stations should play in Philadelphia; several Fox television affiliates receive editorial commentary and news programming from Sinclair Broadcasting's Baltimore headquarters.
A villain in the media ownership controversy - though it's not the only one - is Clear Channel, whose dominance of airwaves and other communication has become shorthand for the deterioration of localism in American broadcasting. Ironically, the San Antonio-based corporation announced on January 12 that it will form localism advisory groups for "regular discussion with the local music community, community leaders and customer representatives."
How magnanimous - and coincidental - that Clear Channel unveiled this grand scheme just two weeks before the FCC hearing. This is not a committment to localism, but a transparent, disingenuous attempt to deflect criticism that likely will rain from the rafters on January 28.
It's easy to feel cynical about the outcome of the FCC hearing. Chairman Powell has been unresponsive, if not downright hostile, to the public protest over media ownership rules. The media and the government policy-makers work hand in glove: If broadcasters want to stay in the government's good graces - and keep those rule changes coming - they have to tout the party line. If the government wants to shape its message (remember Bush complaining that the press wasn't reporting enough "good" news about Iraq?), then it must keep the number of media outlets manageable. Congress, who could legislate media rules, is also held hostage by the system; politicians want to please broadcasters for fear of receiving negative coverage.
Like Clear Channel's shallow overtures, this round of FCC public hearings is intended to assuage the Commission's conscience because it ignored 2.3 million citizen correspondences it received last year demanding that the ownership rules not be relaxed.
For these meetings to matter, the FCC must take the public comments seriously - not the input from lobbyists, corporate interests, and station gurus, whose have ample access to the FCC. The media conglomerates have already spoken and the FCC has listened intently. The proof is in the pudding - the ownership rules. •
By Lisa Sorg
Link to the Current's coverage of media consolidation.