Giving Our Airwaves to the Media Moguls
by Ralph Nader
June 2, 2003
There is little doubt that the Federal Communications Commission, by a split 3 to 2 vote, will open more doors for the giant media moguls to acquire more radio, television and newspaper properties in cities, towns and rural areas of this country. By the same decision, they will close more doors on ideas, speakers, writers, artists and small businesses either because doing so makes them more profits or the moguls disagree with these various viewpoints.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell refused to hold more than one public hearing on this rule-making proceeding outside of Washington, D.C. So two other FCC Commissioners - Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein - held over one dozen unofficial public hearings in numerous cities, including a recent one in Washington, none of which were attended by Chairman Powell.
The hearings were packed. People care. Whether they are the National Organization for Women or the National Rifle Association, or media magnates, Barry Diller or Ted Turner, or Common Cause or William Safire, none want five or six chief executives to decide what they hear, read or see.
Viacom«s CEO Sumner Redstone once said on television that what keeps him and his often obstreperous number two man at Viacom, Mel Karmazin, together is their common interest in boosting the company«s stock price. Not the company«s programming, news staff diversity, localism and innovative content for a more informed and enlightened audience. They sneer at such yardsticks, especially Karmazin - the ultimate monetary mind.
But the CEO of Clear Channel (owner of over 1200 radio stations) - Lowry Mays - is just as monetized. He once said: —We«re not in the business of providing news and information. We«re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We«re simply in the business of selling our customers products.‚
Such commercialism would not be so appalling except that these media moguls are doing all this on our property - the public airwaves - and paying us no rent for exclusive use of our property. Yet they are deciding who says what and who doesn«t say what 24 hours a day. The public airwaves are the property of the American people. The FCC is our hapless, industry-indentured (paid junkets are a way of life for FCC officials) real estate agent that gives away the spectrum.
There is an historic safeguard written into the Communications Act of 1934 which requires the FCC to regulate these radio and television stations according to the —public convenience, interest or necessity.‚ Chairman Powell will finish out his term without putting any modern content to this mandate for exercising the public trust in his deliberations as the chief manager of the public airwaves.
Interestingly, the broadcast and newspaper industry split on these concentration rules. Usually their trade association lobbies speak with one voice as they swarm over Congress and the FCC. Family owned newspapers took a different position than that taken by Gannett or other newspaper chains, while locally owned independent TV and radio stations did not like these monopoly enhancements. They believe, as Ted Turner wrote recently, that —when you lose small businesses, you lose big ideas.‚
But the National Federation of Independent Business, which brags about its power to defend and promote small business, took no position. Apparently, their leaders are spending too much time huddling with big business to listen to the cries of small businesses whose cost of advertising on radio goes up in direct relation to the concentration of ownership of radio stations, such as in New York City.
This is no obscure regulatory rule-making. Hundreds of thousands of comments have arrived at FCC headquarters; there have been demonstrations and protests by groups who usually disagree on public policy issues. What they have in common is that they want a voice. They want to hear other voices beyond the canned entertainment and political party lines that they are receiving.
Were it not for the national absorption with the war in Iraq, the mushrooming opposition to Chairman Powell and the media moguls might have been decisive. As it was, the challenge moved toward critical mass too late for the June 2, 2003 decision which Chairman Powell refused to postpone.
There remains the base of a large movement for recovering some diversity, localism and competition from the mass media. It is bad enough that about 90 percent of what is carried on television and radio is advertising and entertainment. Our country needs serious talk, more good reporters, and citizen access to the great but unseen and unheard talent in our land - from artists to candidates for office.
Above all, the people need to stop having to beg. We own the public airwaves and, after charging the radio and TV stations rent, there will be ample funds for a return to the people of their public airwaves for some time every day in the form of their own audience network.
Ralph Nader is Americaís leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martinís Press, 2002)