New FCC regulations threaten alternative views and undermine democratic ideals

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission will likely decide to relax its rules on ownership of multiple media outlets. With most of the country’s broadcast and print media already consolidated into a handful of companies, this decision will only be the latest step in a disturbingly undemocratic trend.

If you haven’t heard about the impending rule changes, you are not alone. The issue has been met with a near blackout in mainstream news outlets – not surprising, since most of these outlets are owned by the same conglomerates that have been pressing for these very rule changes for years and stand to profit handsomely from them.

Just what changes are in the offing? For one, long-standing restrictions on cross-ownership of media outlets in a single market would be lifted. This means the same company could own newspaper and television stations in the same city.

Among those preparing to celebrate is Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. would then be allowed to keep – in addition to the New York Post -the two New York television stations it acquired in a recent merger. Similarly, the Tribune Co. could retain ownership of broadcast and print outlets in Los Angeles, New York and Hartford, Conn.

Another proposed rule change would raise or repeal the 35-percent cap on ownership of local station affiliates. The rule states no company may own local TV stations that together cover more than 35 percent of the national audience. Both Viacom and News Corp. are already in violation of this limit and are betting on a rule change friendly to their oligopoly.

Like all federal regulatory agencies, the FCC is far from the objective arbiter that it purports to be. Its officials are regularly jetted out to media and telecommunications industry conventions across the globe, where they are wined and dined by the gluttonous moguls in five-star facilities.

In January, for example, 27 FCC officials were feted at an electronics equipment manufacturers’ convention in Las Vegas, where most of them were put up at the palatial Bellagio Hotel & Casino, and some were provided with cars and drivers.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell alone (yes, that’s Colin’s son) logs in at several such shindigs per year, at an average of nearly $2,000 a pop, compliments of the very companies he is supposed to be regulating.

We should pause to consider the implications of such an incestuous spectacle. How can regulatory authorities claim to be independent of the industry giants when they are constantly licking from their palms and eating caviar from their silver plates? And would the media conglomerates invest so much money in courting the FCC if they didn’t feel certain of reaping generous returns?

And we cannot ignore the inexorable concentration of the mass media into fewer and fewer hands. It is symbolic of capitalism’s great ironies that even as channels proliferate, real choices dwindle. How can we cling to the illusion of a free press when not only editors and reporters, but the so-called regulators as well, are beholden to an increasingly select group of moguls?

We have already witnessed the latest wave of consolidation of the nation’s radio stations. Since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a company called Clear Channel has expanded its stable from 40 stations to 1,225 – almost five times as many as its nearest competitor. By any measure of public interest, Clear Channel’s ascent has been bad news. Workers have been laid off. News reporting is sparser and more canned. Stations are less responsive to local issues. Listeners are captive to homogenized playlists.

Author Norm Solomon recently appeared as a talk show guest on Clear Channel station KFI in Los Angeles. When the topic of media consolidation came up, Solomon explicitly criticized Clear Channel’s dominance. However, a station engineer – mindful of who signs his checks – censored his comments on the spot. Such is the state of the “free press.”

So, after the FCC meets Monday – one week after Memorial Day – we may have an occasion to commemorate the latest casualty inflicted on our already battered democratic ideals. Sadly, it probably won’t be the last.

U-Wire Ohio State University Columbus,Ohio