Molly Ivins on the FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, media strangulation and the right to know

Ralph Johansen michele at
Tue Feb 4 16:54:48 MST 2003

Media totalitarianism:  Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, Texas -- Now here's a dandy example of the kind of thing that never
makes it to the front page or the top of the news broadcast, but that
affects absolutely everyone. The Federal Communications Commission, led by
Michael ("my religion is the market") Powell, is fixing to remove the last
remaining barriers against concentration of media.

This means one company can own all the radio stations, television stations,
newspapers and cable systems in any given area. Presently, 10 companies own
over 90 percent of the media outlets. Bill Kovach of the Committee of
Concerned Journalists and Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in
Journalism say these are the most sweeping changes in the rules that govern
ownership of American media since the 1940s. The ownership rules were put in
place after we had seen how totalitarian governments use domination of the
media to goad their countries into war.

We already know what happens when the free market zealots remove
restrictions on ownership. In 1996, the FCC eliminated its rules on radio
ownership. Conglomerates now own hundreds of stations around the country.
One company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200 stations, and there are 30
percent fewer station owners than there were before 1996. The result is less
local news and local programming, since the formats are programmed at
headquarters. Clear Channel owns as many as six or seven stations in a
market, broadcasting generic country, generic pop, generic oldies, etc.

The fearless investigative television journalism we have all come to expect
(an hour-long special on Michael Jackson's face in the works) will not be
improved by this move. The FCC is doing this in an almost covert way. FCC
Commissioner Michael Copps reports that only under pressure did the
commission agreed to hold one lone public hearing on it, in Richmond, Va.

A coalition of consumer and media advocacy groups presented a 140-page
filing that shows joint ownership of newspaper and broadcast outlets fails
to meet the constitutional requirement, set out by the Supreme Court in
1945, that "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse
and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the people."

In 1987, FCC commissioners appointed by Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness
Doctrine, and that has already had a stunning effect on political debate in
this country. That same year, Congress put the Fairness Doctrine into law,
but Reagan vetoed it with this memorable rationalization, "The Fairness
Doctrine is inconsistent with the tradition of independent journalism." The
Fairness Doctrine had been upheld by the Supreme Court in a 1969 decision
that viewed the airwaves as a "public trust" and said fairness required the
public trust to accurately reflect opposing views. In a 1986 decision, the
D.C. Federal Court of Appeals in a 2-to-1 decision upheld a new FCC rule
refusing to apply the Fairness Doctrine to television text. The two
prevailing judges were Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork.

Edward Monks, a lawyer in Eugene, Ore., did a report for the newspaper there
last year on the prevalence of right-wing hosts on radio talk shows. "The
spectrum of opinion on national political commercial talk radio shows ranges
from extreme right wing to very extreme right wing -- there is virtually
nothing else." Monks notes the irony that many of these right-wing hosts
spend much of their time complaining about "the liberal media."

On the two Eugene talk stations, Monks found: "There are 80 hours per week,
more than 4,000 hours per year, programmed for Republican and conservative
talk shows, without a single second programmed for a Democratic or liberal
perspective. ... Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching
the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a
totalitarian society. There is nothing fair balanced or democratic about

To point out the obvious, broadcasters and their national advertisers have a
clear stake in promoting the views of those who advocate lower taxes on the
rich and on big corporations. What is so perfectly loony about the FCC's
proposal to unleash yet another round of media concentration is that it is
being done in the name of "the free market."

Is the free market not supposed to encourage competition rather than lead to
its disappearance? The U.S. now ranks 17th, below Costa Rica and Slovenia,
on the worldwide index of press freedom established by the Reporters Without

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