April 6, 2007

Activists Travail, Triumph over Tribune

(originally published in AREA Chicago) By Mitchell Szczepanczyk

Is Chicago's wealthiest news corporation breaking communications laws and getting away with it? How are they able to operate with such impunity, and what local groups are responding? Imagine a company which thrives on criminal activity, whose private profits come to no small part from the theft of public resources. What's worse, this company spends its profits on political lobbying to ensure that the laws it breaks to keep money flowing are changed retroactively, making legal its previously illegal actions. Worse still, the main law enforcement which oversees this company, rather than working to rebuke this company, is actually a longtime supporter of the company. And staff aid and abet the company, overwhelmingly leaving law enforcement to take higher-paying jobs in the very industry they "regulate."

You would imagine that the media should give critical and consistent coverage to this company, its industry, and its supposed oversight. But that's hard to do when the industry in question is the media. And the company in the spotlight specifically is Chicago's very own Tribune Company--owner of the Chicago Tribune, the RedEye, the Spanish-language daily Hoy, WGN-TV and radio, and the Chicago Cubs baseball team, along with 24 other tv stations and about a dozen daily newspapers across the US.

Criminal Tribune

Among the Tribune Company's properties are the Times-Mirror news paper chain, which the Tribune purchased in 2001. This includes the New York Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, and newspapers in south Florida and Hartford, Connecticut. With the purchase, the Tribune violated--and continued to violate--what is know as the "cross-ownership rule," This is a rule which forbids a single company from owning a tv station and newspaper in the same city, a rule which the Tribune Company is breaking, not once but four times over at least.

(Readers will note that the Tribune Company also holds a TV/newspaper duopoly in Chicago, with ownership of the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV. However, the law grants exceptions to certain "grandfathered" duopolies, which were in place before the cross-ownership rule was enacted in 1975.)

The TV stations connected with those illegal duopolies reside in the largest cities in the United States. Each of those stations has connected with it a monopoly broadcast right in the form of a broadcast license, which grants exclusive and highly lucrative rights to broadcast on the public airwaves.

It's as if bank robbers used the money they took robbing banks to pressure key government actors to make bank robbing retroactively legal.

And those monopoly broadcast rights are granted and enforced by the U.S. government agency which handles broadcast and electronic communications, the Federal Communications Commission (fcc).

FCC: Feeding Corporate Crooks

The FCC, by the stated intent of its own charter, intends to serve the public "interest, convenience and necessity." But those words were never formally defined when the fcc was founded in 1934. "Interest, convenience and necessity" could just as easily mean "maximizing profits for public shareholders" along with "creating public-service journalism to offend powerful people." That vagueness is one key reason why the fcc functions as a servant rather than a disciplinarian of big media companies like the Tribune.

Fcc staff help big media companies maintain tremendous largesse, and for their efforts they're rewarded with high-paying executive jobs in the very industry they used to "regulate." One prominent recent example (but not atypical by any means) is that of former fcc chair Michael Powell (Colin Powell's son). After almost eight years, he left the fcc in early 2005, and now works for an investment firm which specializes in buying media companies.

It's hand-in-glove corruption involving government and industry, but who's going to report it? The media?

How Chicagoans Are Affected

An understanding of local media politics requires some knowledge of federal media policy, but how does this affect Chicagoans locally? Arguably the major consequence is that heightened media concentration increases the possibility of conflicts of interest, and reduces the number of potential media outlets to raise awareness of that conflict or other important issues to Chicagoans.

One example: In November 2005, wgn-tv's license (along with eight other Chicago tv stations) faced an fcc challenge over the lack of local electoral coverage in the 2004 Elections. The Chicago Tribune didn't mention the challenge to its sister tv station, even though other print media outlets (even the Chicago Sun-Times) covered the challenge. The economic consequences of concentration provide an additional defense. With the Tribune Company owning outlets and media properties in a number of other cities nationwide, should anyone try to launch a boycott against the Tribune locally, they would also have to contend with affecting profit flows in other cities, and across media. Indeed, this increasing profit flow is one reason why the Tribune and other major media companies continue to succeed.. With a diversity of profit flowing from media outlets, it's easier to establish a profit model where content is produced once, and then distributed across media outlets, even across the country. And with the need for staff reduced, layoffs then become the norm. Indeed, in late 2005 the Chicago Tribune laid off some 500 employees. The Tribune Company ordered layoffs at the L.A. Times, only to be rebuffed twice in late 2006 by Times executives who resigned in protest rather than fire their own staff.

When Michael Powell was poised to orchestrate a serious dismissal of the remaining fcc media ownership rules in 2003, longstanding concerns about the media crystallized among a great many people. This led to successful actions to stop the fcc and the media they served. But this base of support has been built for a long time by group and activists efforts, working around media as an issue.

Fight the Power

Among the myriad groups nationally working on media, two in particular worked in Chicago: Rainbow/PUSH, and Chicago Media Action (CMA). [Disclaimer: The author of this article is an organizer with CMA.]

Rainbow/PUSH has been organizing hearings, meeting with Congressional representatives, filing papers with the fcc, and as a national-scale organization, had a profile that allowed for some media coverage of the media issue. CMA, however--being smaller, more locally focused, more specialized on media issues and less "bureaucratic"--carried out local protests (including two specifically against Michael Powell in 2003), and served as an education resource specifically on media issues for radio programs and activists who wanted to learn more about the issue.

But there was and is no formal dividing line for tactics between the two. Indeed, both Rainbow/push and cma are organizational members of the Stop Big Media coalition, which is working specifically on media concentration. Also, the aforementioned fcc challenge against wgn-tv and eight other tv stations was filed by Chicago Media Action, a group which protested the fcc as much as it has talked to the agency.

One could argue that the aggregate intent of all of these actions is to raise public awareness. And for good reason: As confirmed by public opinion studies, outrage over the media ownership issue was exactly correllated with knowledge of the issue. In other words, the more people knew about the issue, the more they disliked it and wanted to do something about it. Historically, the great trump card that the Tribune, the fcc and their allies held was that they didn't report about their own corrupt politics. "But that clarified the goal of popular opposition efforts: raise awareness, make media politics an issue, and in so doing help people affect policy which affects media."

Once wider popular awareness of the matter was won, a great many other enforcement mechanisms could then take hold. When some 3 million people responded to the FCC (a new record by orders of magnitude), Congress (which oversees the FCC) took notice and acted in response. What's more, an emergency court order in Philadelphia acknowledged the overwhelming popular response and blocked the FCC's rule changes. This also bought time for a lawsuit to proceed, which itself also succeeded in rolling back the policy. And the Tribune, facing a failure of its attempted policy, has spent the last six months of 2006 trying to fend off a shareholder revolt over its media gigantism.

Crystal Ball Time: What the future might hold

Because of its court losses, the fcc is revisiting the media ownership question. And despite recent victories, the fcc stands poised to wreak further havoc on the media environment, with current fcc chair Kevin Martin (who voted in favor of Powell's plans) taking the agency helm. Even though the Tribune (given its recent troubles) may stand to lose in the short term, the unquestioned assumption of the primacy of markets and big business in relation to the media still means that the public will stand to lose out.

But the scene has changed considerably. People know about the issue and are active. Unlike the 2003 proceedings, the fcc has been forced to hold a number of official hearings on the matter across the United States. Two already have been held in Los Angeles and Nashville, drawing overflow crowds, with another four hearings promised. At this writing, more than a dozen unofficial hearings across the country have already been held with more in the works. A hearing in Chicago, official or unofficial, could well be in the works in 2007. Plus, with "viral" campaigns taking hold across the internet and increasingly impacting other media, popular outreach can occur more widely and more quickly than ever before.

Given the corrupt nature of media policy and the lack of "enforcement", popular awareness and popular involvement remain the best medicine. It's nothing less at stake than the future of media in Chicago and nationwide, and the diversity (or lack thereof) of coverage.