Monday, November 19, 2007

Now's The Time To Say No To Big Media: Any Genuine Democracy May Be At Stake

Some 40 or 50 years ago, many major media outlets in the U.S. were private, family-owned companies. They weren't always dependable when the public interest was at stake. But they were somewhat accountable to the local public, and generally did a better job of covering local issues.

A funny thing happened on the way to corporate consolidation, and conglomeration. The family-owned outlets -- they seem almost as dated as mom and pop stores now -- sometimes operated with profit margins as low as 8%. The owners often understood the long-term value of a good product and were willing to invest in it. Since the '70s, as more outlets became outposts for public companies delivering stockholders profit margins of 20-30%, coverage of local news has suffered, and consolidation has progressed at an alarming pace.

Some in the Senate seem to be wising up, and see that much of the problem is with the policies of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is holding hearings leading up to an anticipated Dec. 18 decision on whether to ease rules on cross-ownership in media markets. Chairman Kevin Martin seems to want to hand the Bush administration, in its waning days, a lasting victory for the right wing by ensuring that the media consolidation we've seen for decades will not just continue, but accelerate.

(Yes, I said the right wing. Anybody who still thinks U.S. corporate media have a liberal bias needs to retire among like-minded, German-fluent folks in a South American country.)

Senate Bill 2332, the proposed Media Ownership Act of 2007, would at least be a modest first step toward restoring diverse and independent media voices. As Corporatism has ascended, media ownership has become one of the crucial battlegrounds. And, advocates of genuine democracy have been losing every battle on that field for a very long time. This is a chance to win one.


Amazingly, a bit of bipartisan support seems to be emerging for this bill. reports that the chief co-sponsors of S. 2332 are Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. The bad news is that Lott hasn't been able to interest many other Senate Republicans in the bill. (I can't imagine why not.) But Dorgan reports that Democratic support is very strong. The question will be whether enough Republicans will sign on to make this veto-proof. That hasn't worked well so far this year. summarizes the bill thusly:

"S. 2332 would promote transparency in the adoption of new media ownership rules by the Federal Communications Commission, and to establish an independent panel to make recommendations on how to increase the representation of women and minorities in broadcast media ownership."

Sadly, two-thirds of the people voting on that site have opposed the bill, which tells me that much of the public doesn't realize that genuine democracy could hang in the balance. Rupert Murdoch recently acquired The Wall Street Journal, a development that will probably expand the right-wing bluster beyond the op-ed page. McClatchy Newspapers recently swallowed Knight Ridder (Hey, buds around KC: Did you think maybe they would change the name of your venerable paper to the Kansas City Bee?) Clear Channel Communications has built an empire of 1,200 radio stations, done in little more than a decade. This from Wikipedia:

"Clear Channel Communications purchased its first FM station in San Antonio in 1972. The company purchased the second "clear channel" AM station WOAI in 1975. In 1986, the company purchased its first stations outside of San Antonio. In 1992, the U.S. Congress relaxed radio ownership rules slightly, allowing the company to acquire more than 2 stations per market. By 1995, Clear Channel owned 43 radio stations and 16 television stations. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law. This act deregulated media ownership, allowing a company to own more stations than previously. Clear Channel went on a buying spree, purchasing more than 70 other media companies, plus individual stations."

I'll spare you all any more stats. They're there in abundance. Check out Professor Edward S. Herman on any search engine.

I've worked in news media for nearly 30 years, and one thing I can tell you is that local ownership usually beats corporate, for many reasons. The public tends to be better served by a company that has a stake in the community, and isn't just trying to deliver maximum profits to the stockholders. From what I've seen, the employees are treated a little better, and that means that more quality people will stay in this, a tough and undervalued profession, rather than do something more lucrative.

The Senate bill is in committee now, where too many good ones languish and eventually die. I urge any and all to weigh in for this, as just a simple first step. Having our mass media in the hands of ever fewer owners, accountable to a faceless mass of shareholders, is one more nail in democracy's coffin. Fascism already seems to be about halfway here; this could be a pivotal battle.

Crossposted at Manifesto Joe.