As Americans across the nation were celebrating the holidays, a federal agency was tying a bow on a gift for big media conglomerates. To avoid public scrutiny, the Federal Communications Commission used the holiday lull to propose rule changes that would allow greater media consolidation in big cities. A vote by the FCC could come any day now.
The rule would make a bad situation worse. In 1983, 90 percent of the American media was owned by 50 companies. Today, 90 percent is controlled by just six corporations: General Electric, News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. Now the FCC is proposing more consolidation. The proposed new rules would let one corporation in the top 20 media markets own a major newspaper, two television stations, and up to eight radio stations, and provide Internet service.
More media consolidation, or what the FCC calls cross-ownership, would result in less local control, fewer outlets offering differing viewpoints, and less ownership diversity.
The large media conglomerates argue that the existing ban on media cross-ownership aimed at preventing a single corporation from controlling the media in a community has “outlived its original purpose” in the era of the Internet. They’re wrong.
Traditional media still dominate. “People spend far more time with television news than online news,” according to a September, 2012, study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The study found that 55 percent of those surveyed said they got news from television. It also said “people spent more time on average getting news from radio than getting news online.” Of course it’s true that there are new opportunities online for news and information, but many of the top news websites are owned by the same conglomerates that control other major media.
What is particularly disturbing about FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s stealth attempt to change the rules is that the American people already have spoken out on this issue. In 2007, under then-Chairman Kevin Martin, the FCC proposed similar changes and held a series of public meetings around the country to solicit public input. The response was overwhelming. Thousands turned out to the public meetings and an astonishing 3 million Americans weighed in with comments. The message was clear: 99 percent of the public comments opposed the media consolidation proposal. The 2007 proposal was also rejected by a bipartisan majority in the US Senate. A federal appeals court eventually threw out the rule because it did not adequately address the impact its changes would have on female and minority media ownership.
Diversity of ownership remains an issue today. The FCC’s own data show that women own fewer than 7 percent of television stations and racial and ethnic minorities own just 3.4 percent of television stations and 8 percent of commercial FM radio broadcast stations. The FCC’s new rules would harm efforts to promote diversity in media ownership.
Chairman Genachowksi has learned from his predecessor’s failure. This time around, there have been no public meetings outside of Washington and just a handful of “workshops.” But we know who he did hear from. On Nov. 28, 2012, News Corp. lobbyists said they visited the FCC and “urged the commission to eliminate the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule.” With a weaker rule, News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch could add the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune to a media empire which already includes Fox broadcasting, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and many other media properties. Do Americans really want so much of their news coming through the filter of moguls like Murdoch?
I asked Genachowski to delay a vote by six months and hold public hearings, like his predecessor did, to solicit public input. He rejected my request. Despite opposition from many of my colleagues in Congress, more than 40 public-interest and civil-rights groups, and hundreds of thousands of Americans who have signed a petition just in the last few weeks, the FCC is set to approve Genachowski’s proposal to gut cross-ownership rules.
We must not allow the FCC to run roughshod over the public on such a sweeping change to our media consolidation laws.
Bernie Sanders is an independent US senator from Vermont.