Tuesday, September 23, 2003


Perhaps the headlines should have read “Media giants cruelly attacked by American people.”

That was the gist of the comments made by Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a Monday interview in The New York Times. Powell, in considering the hostility that met his commission’s deregulation of media ownership rules, whinged that:

“There was a concerted grass-roots effort to attack the commission from the outside in.”

An odd complaint, but one consistent with the Bush administration’s belief that it’s far more efficient for it to do the thinking for the nation. Powell seems unhappy that more than 750,000 people wrote to protest the deregulation, especially since, according to the Times article, “he believed that many of the comments ... were mass-produced by a handful of groups, like the National Rifle Association, which are less interested in the policy merits of the debate than in using the controversy for their own fund-raising purposes.”

Ignoring the fact that opposition to the new rules was extraordinarily diverse, including such groups as Common Cause as well as the NRA, how could those “handful of groups” benefit from a controversy, whether on the merits of policy or not, unless their members were opposed to it? Somehow, Powell is making the argument that “grass-roots” opposition to deregulation isn’t valid, and nor is opposition by groups representing large groups of people.

Who remains?

In fact, even medium-sized media companies opposed the new rules, which passed anyway in a 3-2 vote on June 2. The vote was party-line, Republicans against the Democrats, approving regulations that Powell considered "modern rules that take proper account of the explosion of new media outlets for news, information and entertainment, rather than perpetuate the graying rules of a bygone black-and-white era."

That’s the rationale for the change: that the new media options, on cable, satellite and the Internet, make the business environment too challenging for the traditional media. As the Washington Post wrote June 3, “companies such as News Corp. and Walt Disney Co. said their businesses were hamstrung by obsolete rules that prevented their broadcast networks and stations from competing effectively with the burgeoning cable industry. In order to keep providing free, over-the-air programming, broadcasters claimed to need the additional revenue brought in by owning more television stations, which are among the most profitable of media properties, routinely reaping yearly profit margins of 20 to 50 percent.”

One reason those stations are so profitable is that the companies have to pay to be on cable, whereas the “free” programming (the stuff packed with paid commercials) is broadcast over airwaves that have been given away. But, in another oddity, the largest media corporations are all over cable television and the World Wide Web, which they present as an enemy from which they need defense. According to The Wall Street Journal, the top 20 news Web sites are owned by 16 media giants, with the top five sites getting more hits than the next 15 combined.

If new-media outlets are such a danger, which implies they are a success, why can’t the largest media companies make enough money from them to make up for their inability to absorb more old-line media such as newspapers, radio and other television stations? They could buy a bunch, as much as they wanted, since they're not regulated like old media. I haven’t seen this addressed, although it probably doesn’t matter, because the challenge to the new rules that began in the U.S. Senate is likely to die in the House of Representatives.

House leadership is confident it will never reach a vote. President Bush has vowed to veto any legislation against the new rules, anyway. It would be his first.

Part of the crew defending the FCC’s new rules is House Energy and Commerce head William “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.). To help understand his thinking, note a quote from Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson from the May 14 edition of the Boston Herald, in which Johnson notes that the United States doesn’t seem to need any more diversity in its media voices:

“There is more programming than ever before aimed at African American audiences, at Hispanics, women, sports fans, even home shoppers,” Johnson said, in a comment that is either breathtaking in its stupidity -- or in its cynicism. Do Johnson and Tauzin really think that’s what “media diversity” means? Or were they merely striding alongside Powell as he stepped boldly into that world where grass-roots opposition is bad?

Taking back the deregulatory rules “would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos. This is a harm the FCC's media rules were designed to avert,” Powell said in a statement in May.

Looking around at today’s media landscape hardly reveals it to be in chaos, even if its regulations are, but it does reveal opposition.

Perhaps that, to Powell and his ilk, is what chaos means.

No comments: