August 8, 2003

Big Media: The Public is Right to Be Concerned

I co-wrote this op-ed which was submitted to the Chicago Tribune in the vain hope that they would respond to someone on the topic of media politics.

Defenders of the FCC's recent deregulation efforts, such as the authors of a recent Tribune editorial (Aug. 6, "Big Media Confusion Reigns"), say Big Media "isn't really all that big." After all, some 300 different cable and broadcast channels provide more than enough options for those who don't like what the networks have to offer.

But a closer look at the numbers tell a different story. Some 80% of the 91 most widely distributed cable networks are owned by only six companies, five of which also own the major broadcast networks. The number of TV station owners nationwide has dwindled from 540 to just 360 in the past 25 years. And the same 5 or 6 conglomerates who control the majority of the networks and own the lion's share of the TV stations are now producing a growing share of the programming that gets aired in prime time. The media aren't big? In most respects, Big Media have never been bigger.

Contrary to what FCC chair Michael Powell and the Tribune editorial staff would have us believe, ownership matters. If the FCC's rule changes were implemented, a single corporation would be allowed to own two TV stations, eight radio stations and the dominant newspaper in a city the size of New York or Chicago. And since many radio stations and an increasing number of TV stations no longer maintain their own news operations, that means just one company--indeed, one staff--could end up providing the majority of local news for a city of millions. Scary, huh?

It gets scarier; it could literally be a matter of life and death. No example is as stark as the North Dakota town of Minot. In January 2003 Minot had a late-night chemical train leak which created an immedidate hazard to the town. Police tried to alert in efforts to contact the populace, except that the emergency broadcast system was down, and when police tried to broadcast the matter on the city's six radio stations, all six stations were owned by the same Clear Channel office and no one came to the Clear Channel office for some 90 minutes. The delay forced some 300 people to be hospitalized; one person even died. True, there's no guarantee that people could have been alerted in time if all six of those radio stations had different owners, but it illustrates the haunting prospects of a bloated and irresponsible media.

But citizens across the political spectrum have raised opposition against media deregulation, sending more than 2 million notices to Congress. And our political representatives in Washington are paying attention: On July 23, the House of Representatives voted 400 to 21 to prevent the FCC from lifting the cap on the TV audience a single company could reach. Meanwhile, the Senate is poised to reinstate the ban on "cross-ownership" of a TV station and a newspaper in the same market. What's more, a seldom-used "resolution of disapproval" could reverse this deregulation entirely. The nation's leading media conglomerates are worried and with good reason.