FCC's decision bears bad tidings for media impact

    This just in: “”Localism affirmed as important policy goal.””

    This headline and other similar misconceptions were found in the Federal Communications Commissions’ statement regarding the June 2 decision to further deregulate the American media markets.

    “”If [the television] is the toaster with pictures, soon only Wonder Bread will pop out,”” said dissenting FCC officer Jonathon Adelstein of the ownership concentration that will continue as a result of the decision.

    The FCC’s ruling includes points such as lifting the ban on owning a newspaper and television station in the same local market; raising the cap on the portion of the national audience a broadcaster can reach from 35 percent to 45 percent; and allowing companies to own up to three TV stations and eight radio stations in the biggest local markets.

    This week’s ruling comes seven years after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a disaster in its own right, when mergers like America Online-Time Warner or Disney-ABC occured. The 1996 act worked in the favor of the global media empires, as they snatched up as many broadcast, Web and print media as allowed in order to remain “”competitive.””

    As it stands, five companies — AOL-Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, General Electric and Disney — own over 90 percent of the television stations in the United States. So while the 70-plus channels you may receive at home seem like you are receiving a diversity of interests, they are really representative of five companies’ interests.

    It’s the drive for competition that has kept the market on a steady path toward anarchy since the 1980s. Under Reagan, the FCC worked to disspell “”the perception of broadcasters as community trustees [and] should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants,”” as commissioners Mark Fowler and Daniel Brenner said in 1982.

    Sure, it’s easy to realize that in a capitalist economy the media needs to make money. But, when coupled with the inherent responsibility the media has of disseminating information to the public that it will use to judge the leaders and issues affecting the world around them, the media’s drive for profits and power do not uphold democracy Americans expect.

    For example, look at cable news. Currently, national network news programs, such as programs anchored by Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or Dan Rather, have seen a drastic plunge in ratings because cable news is all the rage these days. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are the providers of news these days as cable ownership laws were relaxed in 1996, stimulating the market. As intended, the consumer has spoken as a result of this increased competition. But the competition did not stimulate the market by providing a diversity of viewpoints competing for niche interests as the lawmakers had previously thought.

    Instead, Fox News has enjoyed much success by providing viewers with their brand of “”infotainment”” in true Fox style. That’s right, the people who bring you such quality programs as “”When Animals Attack,”” “”Cops”” and “”Temptation Island”” are also the ones trying to keep a straight face while calling Geraldo Rivera or Pat Sajak “”journalists.””

    Some may argue that Fox News is just one channel and viewers have their choice as to what to watch – that is understandable. But the fact of the matter is that, in this case, the competition has lead to imitation. The ratings battle has only resulted in producing Fox News imposters instead of trying to appeal to the tastes of everybody else.

    In a recent interview on “”The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,”” Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “”Hardball,”” announced that his network would be revamping their programming schedule to compete with Fox News. Would MSNBC be looking for an innovative direction to garner ratings? Not a chance. MSNBC, Matthews said, was looking to bring faces fresh out of the entertainment industry to entertain audiences in lieu of informing them.

    But don’t fret. Sooner or later, MSNBC will be owned by the same conglomerate that owns CNN. Indeed, rumors have circulated that the AOL-Time Warner behemoth would be looking to buy the NBC properties (including their holdings in MSNBC) from General Electric after the FCC loosened the regulations on how much of the national audience a company can reach from 35 percent to 45 percent.

    In April 2002, a federal appeals judge asked that the 35 percent rule be reviewed, but it never was very enforceable. Both Viacom (owner of CBS and UPN networks among others) and News Corp. (manager of Fox and all its spin-offs) had already exceeded the 35 percent rule added in the 1996 act.

    A lot of the rules that had been spelled out in previous FCC decisions have gone unenforced. The ban against owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market has been “”waived”” for a number of conglomerates including Cox, News Corp., Tribune Co. and Gannet. The cross-ownership may not affect a huge market like New York, where News Corp. owns the New York Post and two TV stations, but could pose a problem for Tampa, Fla., where the Tampa Tribune and WFLA will soon share the same newsroom in a much smaller market.

    Look no further than your own backyard to see how Clear Channel Communications has basically monopolized the radio market in San Diego. A dozen or so of these “”local”” radio stations are owned or operated by Clear Channel, making it quite difficult for an independent broadcaster to land a frequency on a spectrum where a Goliath takes the lion’s share. Just this year, the local sports station, XTRA-AM, was consolidated with Clear Channel’s Los Angeles affiliate to reap higher advertising rates as a “”Southern California”” sports station, significantly cutting San Diego’s local-specific coverage.

    The motives behind these changes are no secret. Media conglomerates have treated FCC officials to more than $2.8 million in trips and entertainment since 1995, as the Center for Public Integrity reported this month. The wining and dining, said FCC spokesman David Fiske, was not an excessive conflict of interest: The lawmakers were traveling to learn more about the industry they regulated. But what are the chances the Beach & Bay Press or KSDT flew an FCC bigwig to San Diego to see the struggles of independent media?

    Looking back to the first law regarding the mass media, the Radio Act of 1927, the federal government expected companies to uphold the public interest in exchange for the opportunity to broadcast exclusively on the scarce frequencies. Scarcity seems like a concept of the past, but not if you consider the rising costs it takes to operate a media outlet as the market becomes more and more concentrated. A diversity of viewpoints must be available to the American public if democracy is to be preserved.

    The cozying up to business and political partners by “”news”” stations such as by News Corp., and the conglomeration of such interests across every medium from book publishing to satellite ownership (oh yeah, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch is about to fork over $6.6 billion to acquire DirecTV) only serve to distract the mass media’s purpose of delivering varying viewpoints, objective news and entertainment for entertainment’s sake instead of fulfilling their own agenda and interests.

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