Sunday, February 6, 2011

How the Right Wing Stole the People's Media for the Big Corporations

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Those who defend the GOP/right wing assault on media and free speech defend media consolidation with an irrelevant 'factoid'. Before 'deregulation', they say, there were only three huge networks --CBS, NBC, ABC. This may be true on the surface but misses the point that throughout the nation there were several thousand locally owned television and radio stations; all of them were required by the FCC to 'serve local interests'. As a result, many radio stations in small and large 'market's maintained viable 'News' and/or 'Public Affairs Departments'. These stations had a finger on the pulse of the listening community like few if any have today.

The record refutes right wing spin. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most or all news media operating in the U.S. Nevertheless, Ben Bagdikian was labeled "alarmist" when he pointed out that fact in his book --
The Media Monopoly. He was no alarmist! His 4th edition [1992] stated: "in the U.S., fewer than two dozen of these extraordinary creatures' own and operate 90% of the mass media"! He was right. These 'extraordinary creatures' dominate and/or control almost all of America's media to include newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies.

Before the GOP attacked the media, a 'network' was precisely that -- a network of locally owned radio or TV stations. A CBS or ABC affiliate station, for example, was 'affiliated' with ABC --not owned by it! For such an outlet, ABC was just a source of news. Many of these stations maintained very large and impressive news organizations. Early in my career, as I worked in a small radio station in Odessa, TX., I was given a tour of KRLD AM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Dallas, TX. KRLD was made famous world wide for its local coverage of the assassination of JFK. As large and as impressive were KRLD's facilities --both radio and TV --it was local!

It was not until the late sixties that many 'stations' began to automate; it was not until Ronald Reagan attacked the Fairness Doctrine that locally-owned outlets were no longer required to provide 'public affairs' airtime to local groups. In other words, they were no longer required to be responsible to a 'service' area. Interestingly, the term 'service' area is no longer used, replaced recently with the the term: 'coverage'. Ergo: you --as a person --are no longer 'served'. You are 'covered'!
The Supreme Court proved willing to uphold the doctrine, eking out space for it alongside the First Amendment. In 1969's Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, journalist Fred Cook sued a Pennsylvania Christian Crusade radio program after a radio host attacked him on air. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld Cook's right to an on-air response under the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that nothing in the First Amendment gives a broadcast license holder the exclusive right to the airwaves they operate on. But when Florida tried to hold newspapers to a similar standard in 1974's Miami Herald Publishing Co. V. Tornillo, the Supreme Court was less receptive. Justices agreed that newspapers — which don't require licenses or airwaves to operate — face theoretically unlimited competition, making the protection of the Fairness Doctrine unneeded.

The doctrine stayed in effect, and was enforced until FCC chairman Mark Fowler began rolling it back during Reagan's second term — despite complaints from some in the Administration that it was all that kept broadcast journalists from thoroughly lambasting Reagan's policies on air. In 1987, the FCC panel repealed the Fairness Doctrine altogether with a 4-0 vote.

It was not until Ronald Reagan waged war on a 'liberal media' (in fact, a 'local' media) that smaller stations were routinely bought out and or merged with increasingly larger media conglomerates, ergo: huge corporations. By the early 90s, some six or seven huge corporations were reported to own some 90 percent or more of all broadcast and/or cable programming in the United States.

It was not until Ronald Reagan and the GOP gave 'license' to big corporations, that the corporate owners began to 'clone' their programming among their properties. It was not until the Fairness Doctrine was trashed that ilk like Rush Limbaugh were given license to flout responsibility, public service, the pursuit of truth or, if not truth, accuracy in reporting. Ilk like Limbaugh were given a license to lie, propagandize, proselytize on behalf of the increasingly rabid, ideological and utterly absurd GOP and the increasingly rabid right wing in general.

It is interesting to note that the rising costs of electronic 'advertising' seems to have been concurrent with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the GOP. It had hard to tell which is the dog and which is the tale. In any case, one hand washed the other.
A candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from a district in metropolitan Chicago would find the economics of TV advertising impossible without heavy financial backing. The typical House district has 150,000 households. A Chicago-based television station that reaches a typical district also reaches three million households in thirty-five counties in four states. The candidate either pays for the 2,850,000 unwanted households or loses the television access to his or her district that a richer candidate can buy. (A prime-time, thirty-second commercial for a major sponsor can cost more than $250,000 to produce. Few political commercials cost as much, but the cost even for less elaborate political ads on television is so high that it has created an ominous barrier to entry into American politics.) Thirty-second commercials must be repeated to be effective. The thirty-second political ad on a Chicago station, repeated ten times, would cost more than $50,000 just for air time. The ad would then be broadcast over a station that reaches so large an audience that 95 percent do not vote in the candidate's district. --Ben H. Bagdikian, Democracy and the Media: The Media Monopoly
'Reagan Revolution' is a misnomer. It was, in fact, a reactionary counter-revolution which succeeded in undoing FDR's 'New Deal'. The broadcast industry in which I cut my teeth may be traced to the Federal Radio Act of 1927, an act which nationalized the airwaves, establishing the fact that the 'airwaves' are owned by the people collectively. A Federal Communications Act created the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] to whom fell the task of allocating broadcast frequencies to those wishing to own and operate a radio or television facility.

The Communications Act of 1934 'refined' and 'expanded' this authority and empowered the FCC to administer the issuing of broadcast licenses to persons or entities wishing to broadcast on the 'airwaves' that the law had said belonged to the people collectively. The measure required that the FCC act responsibly in the 'public convenience, interest or necessity'. There are no such requirements today, thus the horror stories about small towns hit by tornadoes or worse because the so-called 'local' radio station had not issued warnings. In fact, most of those so-called radio stations are automated and/or owned by absentee owners or, worse, a huge corporation based hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away. Such an owner feels no obligation to serve his/her/its 'coverage' area. They are in it for the bucks! They have no interest in tornadoes but for the loss of ad revenues they might represent.

Most repugnant to the huge corporations which are now placed above the law was a 'fairness doctrine' which required broadcast licensees to provide equal time to citizens believing that their positions or groups had been neglected. Not surprisingly, the largest broadcast companies --ABC, NBC for example --had lobbied Congress to establish very high fees for broadcast licenses. Interestingly, Congress deemed this a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of Free Speech.
Media democracy is founded on two important notions: one, that public forums such as radio and television airwaves are public property, and two, that everyone has a right both to have their voice heard and to access a variety of viewpoints and information . Currently there is much debate over the benefits and downsides to media regulation. The FCC's proposed deregulations of media ownership laws are inciting this fiery debate between proponents and opponents of deregulation.

Proponents argue that deregulating current media ownership laws would increase media outlets by promoting more competition, while opponents argue that similar deregulations in the past which were supposed to increase competition (such as the 1996 Telecommunications Act) in fact had the opposite effect. These previous deregulations caused a surge of mergers that discouraged competition. Without competition, the two founding notions of media democracy have been significantly marginalized in recent years as the diversity of media sources shrink at an alarming rate.

The loss of diversity in media ownership is a concern for democracy in the U.S., as citizens need a variety of information on all sides of the spectrum in order to make educated, informed decisions that will affect both their lives and the future of democracy. It is essential to provide media forums in which people can speak for themselves and communicate with one another. This paper will explore the impending FCC decision, the history of communication regulations and the ramifications of potential deregulation. --Kristin Lee, The FCC and Media Democcracy, WIFP Associate
I don't believe that 'consolidated media' are serving or can serve 'public interests'. Nor can they be 'fully accountable and dependable'. If, for example, only one or two media conglomerates dominate in a single market it is doubtful that a diversity of opinions will ever see the light of day. In fact, as research reveals increasing levels of consolidation, it likewise reveals that fewer issues are covered from increasingly narrow points of view.

The most notable effects are local. Reporters say their stories are often edited and worse --refused! 'Exposes' in which advertisers are threatened by 'potentially damaging information', are routinely re-written to ameliorate potential damage to advertisers' reputations. At the very worst the 'offending' material is re-written, edited or censored outright.
In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S. in 2000, the number had fallen to six. Since then, there have been more mergers and the scope has expanded to include new media like the Internet market. More than 1 in 4 Internet users in the U.S. now log in with AOL Time-Warner, the world's largest media corporation. In 2004, Bagdikian's revised and expanded book, The New Media Monopoly, shows that only 5 huge corporations -- Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) -- now control most of the media industry in the U.S. General Electric's NBC is a close sixth. --Media Consolidation -- a Historical Perspective
The term "media consolidation" is clearly detrimental and problematic. There are numerous reports of networks refusing to air 'anti-war' ads though they were 'paid'. Routinely, news stories may be revised or dumped should they offend a sponsor. Money itself is allowed to slant the news --wealth as propaganda!
Over the past several years, NOW has consistently reported on the topic of media ownership. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created in 1934 with jurisdiction over radio, interstate telephone communication, and later television. But the FCC has always struggled with a fundamental lack of clarity about its proper functions. In its mission to serve the public interest, should the FCC crack down on indecency on the airwaves? Should it use its power to rescind the licenses of wayward stations? The FCC continues to face such questions. Get background information on some of the FCC's more recent decisions below: UPDATES: Since the FCC voted on the rule changes there have been developments in the courts and in Congress.
  • October 8, 2003: NBC said it would purchase the entertainment arm of Vivendi Universal for $3.8 billion.
  • September 3, 2003:
    a federal appeals court in Philadelphia issued an order blocking the rule changes from taking effect. (Read the ruling.)
  • September
    4, 2003:
    The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill that contained a provision that would effectively block the ownership rule changes.
  • July 23, 2003: The House voted 400-21 to approve a spending bill that included a provision to block the FCC decision to allow major television networks to own up to 45% of the country's viewers. The Bush administration has voiced opposition to the attempt to rescind the FCC ruling.
--Bill Moyers, NOW

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