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On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission is planning on authorizing sweeping changes to the American news media. The rule changes could allow your local TV stations, newspaper, radio stations, and cable provider to all be owned by one company. NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox could have the same corporate parent. The resulting concentration of ownership could be deeply destructive to our democracy.

When we talk to Congresspeople about this issue, their response is usually the same: "We only hear from media lobbyists on this. It seems like my constituents aren't very concerned with this issue." A few thousand emails could permanently change that perception. Please join us in asking Congress and the FCC to fight media deregulation at:


After the FCC and Congress relaxed radio ownership rules, corporate giant Clear Channel Communications swept in and bought hundreds of stations. Clear Channel has used its might to support pro-war political rallies and conservative talk shows, keep anti-war songs off its stations, coerce musicians into playing free promotional concerts, and bully them into performing at its music venues. In many towns that used to have a diverse array of radio options, Clear Channel is now the only thing on the dial.

Monopoly power is a dangerous thing, and Congress is supposed to guard against it. But the upcoming rule change could change the landscape for all media and usher in an era in which a few corporations control your access to news and entertainment. Please tell Congress and the FCC to support a diverse, competitive media landscape by going to:


You can also automatically have your comments publicly filed at the FCC.

Democracy is built on the idea that the views and beliefs of an informed citizenry are the best basis for political decision-making. Without access to fair and balanced news, the system simply doesn't work. And media corporations can't be trusted to balance themselves: news corporations have shown again and again that they're willing to sacrifice journalism to improve the bottom line. That's why we need many media entities -- to keep each other honest, and to provide the information and ideas that make democracy happen.

Please join this critical campaign, and let Congress know you care.

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The Link Between The Media, The War, And Our Right To Know

By Danny Schechter

News Dissector

By now, all of us realize that there is a high powered media campaign aimed at promoting the war on Iraq and shaping the views of the American people, relying on a media-savvy political strategy to sell the administration's priorities and policies.

There is an intimate link between the media, the war, and the Bush administration that many activists are even unaware of.

Few administrations in history have been as adept at using polling, focus groups, "perception managers," spinners, and I.O. or "information operations" specialists to sell slogans to further a "patriotically correct" climate. Orchestrating media coverage is one of their most well-honed skills, aided and abetted by professional PR firms, corporate consultants, and media outlets.

Our Republican Guard relies on Murdoch-owned media assets like the Fox News Channel, supportive newspapers, aggressive talk radio hosts, conservative columnists, and an arsenal of on-air pundits adept at polarizing opinion and devaluing independent journalism.

They benefit from a media environment shaped by a wave of media consolidation that has led to the number of companies controlling our media drop from fifty to between five and seven in just ten years. Then there is the merger of news biz and show biz. Entertainment-oriented reality shows help depoliticize viewers while sensation-driven cable news limits analytical journalism and in-depth issue-oriented coverage.

Is it any wonder that most Americans admit to being uninformed about many of the key issues we confront? Is it surprising that many blindly follow feel-good slogans or appeals to national unity and conformity? This media problem is at the heart of all the issues that we face. And it is getting worse not better.

If we want to save our democracy, we have to press the media to do its constitutionally protected job as a watchdog on people in power. We must insist that all views be given access, and that concerns of critics of this administration be heard and debated.

We live in a climate where even journalists are being intimidated for stepping out of line. In Iraq, the hotel assigned to journalists was fired on by soldiers, who killed two media workers. In the U.S., Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh was baited as a "media terrorist" by Pentagon advisor Richard Perle. . Hundreds of journalists were "embedded" to sanitize war coverage. Independent journalists were harassed or ignored. Antiwar commercials have been suppressed and censored, while conservative talking-heads outnumber all others by several hundred percent.

Last week MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield spoke at a college about the coverage of the Iraq war. She was honest and critical. "There were horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism? Or was this coverage?" she asked. "As a journalist, I have been ostracized just from going on television and saying, 'Here's what the leaders of Hizbollah, a radical Moslem group, are telling me about what is needed to bring peace to Israel,'" she said. "And, 'Here's what the Lebanese are saying.' Like it or lump it, don't shoot the messenger, but that's what they do."

The "they" undoubtedly were her bosses at the GE- and Microsoft-owned channel, the same men who fired top-rated talk show host Phil Donahue and then used the war to try and out -fox Fox's jingoism with promos proclaiming "God Bless America."

They quickly sought to silence Banfield. "NBC News president Neal Shapiro has taken correspondent Ashleigh Banfield to the woodshed for a speech in which she criticized the networks for portraying the Iraqi war as 'glorious and wonderful,'" reported the Hollywood Reporter. An official NBC spokesperson later told the press, "She and we both agreed that she didn't intend to demean the work of her colleagues, and she will choose her words more carefully in the future."

It was the kind of patronizing statement you would expect in the Pravda or Baghdad's old Ministry of misinformation. In Saddam's Iraq, she would have been done for. Let's see what happens at NBC. Already, Rush Limbaugh is calling on her to move to Al Jazeera. Michael Savage, the new rightwing host on MSNBC who replaced Donahue, has branded his own colleague a "slut" Å  on the air!

Even mainsteam media monitor Howard Kurtz is now looking back on the war coverage in anguish. "Despite the investment of tens of millions of dollars and deployment of hundreds of journalists, the collective picture they produced was often blurry," he wrote in his column. He raises a number of questions: "Were readers and viewers well-served or deluged with confusing information? And what does all of this portend for coverage of future wars?"

There are other questions that need asking. What is the connection between the war and pro-Bush coverage we have been seeing and the upcoming June 2 FCC decision that is expected to relax broadcast regulations. Is it unthinkable to suggest that big media companies who stand to make windfall profits once Colin Powell's son, FCC chief Michael Powell, engineers rules that permit more media mergers and concentration. Would they want to appease and please an administration that frequently bullies its opponents?

According to experts cited by the Los Angeles Times, if the media moguls get what they want, only a dozen or so companies will own most U.S. stations, giving them even more control over the marketplace of ideas than they already have. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy explains, "The ownership rules on the FCC chopping block have been developed over the last 50 years. They have been an important safeguard ensuring the public's basic First Amendment rights. The rationale for these policies is that they help provide for a diverse media marketplace of ideas, essential for a democracy. They have not been perfect. But the rules have helped constrain the power of the corporate media giants."

The FCC is, in effect, holding out the possibility of freeing the networks from restrictions on owning more stations. At a time when the industry is hurting financially, big bucks are once again being dangled in front of media moguls. No wonder none will challenge the government on the current war effort? Would you be surprised that the conservative news service gave its award for best Iraq war coverage of the war to Dan Rather (and not Fox because of Geraldo's antics). This is the same CBS that was once admired for the reporting of Edward R, Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Powell makes the connection between the war and his agenda. He says that bigger media companies are needed more than ever because only they can cover the war the way the Iraq war was covered. Need he say any more?

At first glance, the relationship between media concentration and what we see on TV seems tenuous. But is it? The cutbacks in coverage of world news that left so many American uninformed and unprepared for what happened on 9/11 took place amidst this greatest wave of media consolidation in history. It has already had an effect.

And yes it can get worse. Unless and until Americans of conscience who care about their country make the media issue their own.

—"News Dissector" Danny Schechter writes a daily column on news coverage for Mediachannel.org. He is the author of the just published "Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror": ( Rowman & Littlefield" and offers a free download of a "companion soundtrack" to the book.

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Barry Diller Takes on Media Deregulation

By Bill Moyers, Now with Bill Moyers

April 28, 2003

Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript of an interview with media mogul Barry Diller who appeared on the PBS weekly newsmagazine NOW with Bill Moyers, on Friday, April 25.

Many things can be said about Barry Diller. But what he says about himself goes right to the point.

"I've not conducted my life in the service of smallness," understates the man who created Fox Broadcasting and ran some of the world's media giants: ABC Entertainment, Paramount, Vivendi Universal. And is even now chairman and CEO of USA Interactive, itself an empire of informational services from the Home Shopping Network to Ticketmaster.

"Second," says Barry Diller, "I am a contrarian." This is the man, after all, who at the failing Paramount Studio took a huge gamble on a movie called "Saturday Night Fever." Everyone else said it was a sure loser. It then broke every box office record and moved Paramount from last to first place in the motion picture business.

Now, once again, Barry Diller is shaking up the media world. A couple weeks ago in Las Vegas, he stunned an audience of broadcasters with a speech in a moment where fewer and fewer conglomerates own and determine more and more of what we see, hear and read. And the FCC is about to allow them to own even more. Barry Diller said, "Whoa! We've gone too far." He's here to talk about that contrarian idea. Welcome to NOW.

BARRY DILLER: Nice to be here.

Why now? Why did you choose this moment to speak out on media conglomeration?

Well, I don't know. Maybe because, you know, all the forces are, so to speak, gathered. ... Thirty years ago, three companies controlled 90 percent of everything we heard or saw. And that was a bad idea. Now four companies, five companies control 90 percent of everything we see.

I mean, you stated in your speech that ten years ago independent producers in Hollywood created 16 new television series. Last year, only one. Is that the consequence of oligopoly?

Sure it is.

How so?

Well, if you have companies that produce, that finance, that air on their channel and then distribute worldwide everything that goes through their controlled distribution system, then what you get is fewer and fewer actual voices participating in the process. Used to have dozens and dozens of thriving independent production companies producing television programs. Now you have less than a handful. What's caused that is the forces of consolidation.

There should be some restraints. Broadcasting really used to have a very clear public service quotient and it's been lost. Other things have been lost too. This perfect balance which was created by fear (is gone). Fear that your license would get taken away from you plus a real sense of public service responsibility. That those airwaves actually belonged to the public. You used them. You profited from them. But you had to keep it in balance. That was a healthy environment. And in that environment, of course, mistakes get made, excesses happen. But they rebalance themselves.

Today, after Mark Fowler says...

The Chairman of FCC in the Reagan Era.

Who says, you know, a television is a toaster. It's just there for marketing. All that goes away.

Could a young Barry Diller make it today? A young Ted Turner? Could there be a new ESPN? A new CNN?

Almost impossible.


Ted Turner started with TBS, which was a rundown Atlanta television station that he got to Superstation status. But he was still a tiny, little player when he said, "You know, I've got this idea for a 24-hour news network." Of course everybody thought he was crazy. Everybody thought that it was hopeless. But he sold cable system after cable system on this idea. He got backing from a whole group of people to start what was then just a stand-alone. I mean, he didn't have very much more than that.

That can't happen today because if you knock on the door of these entities, they say, "Well, first of all, you know, it's not independent by definition 'cause we'll own it." There's no chance you can own it. That's gone now. If you've got a great idea, an idea will win out. It'll just be owned by one of the large and concentrated players. ... But what I do think is these five players who believe they are living in a justifiably unregulated universe should have enough regulation – not that strangles them by any stretch – to stop these absolute forces of complete vertical and horizontal integration.

Is this a change of heart for you? I mean, you've run huge companies. You run one now. If I remember correctly, when Disney bought ABC you said, "This is a great transaction."


What's different now?

Well, I think what's different now are a couple of things. The first thing that is different now is that I had hoped that the regulatory process would tightly follow consolidation and concentration. And ... that we would not be living in an area where it is considered antique and stupidly liberal to have regulations.

Laissez-faire. Let it all mix. If we had not gone and raised the caps on broadcasting on what any one person could own in broadcasting. If we had said in this Communications Act of '96 that we would actually impose real public service obligations on broadcasters and not tossed them out. Much of this consolidation would have (still) happened. But it would have allowed other voices to come in. It would have ... simply stopped complete vertical and horizontal development.

You mentioned the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The chairman of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, said at that time – and he was a Democrat – here's what he said: "The new law is intended to begin the era of genuine competition." And you say just the opposite has (happened) . . .

What happened is that instead of the competition that was supposed to get more voices and all of those things, this dangerous oligopoly reconstituted itself in ways that nobody thought would happen at the time. ... Five, ten years ago there were thousands and thousands of cable operators serving their local communities. Now, there are three big ones and three mid-size ones. And no one else essentially.

And the consequence is?

The consequences have to be that when you get that kind of size it has to restrain the ability of any new player. It gives them such buying power. It gives them such overwhelming power in the marketplace that everyone has to do essentially what they say.

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, and others say, "Look, we have 500-plus channels. We have the satellite. We have the wide open internet that they are gonna know so well." I mean, these have radically changed the media landscape. Perhaps we have more diversity.

No, we don't. Because what we have is an absolute fact that five companies control 90 percent of all of it. It has been reconstituted. Instead of three channels that were controlled by a few people, there are now 500 controlled by a few people.

This doesn't relate to the internet, by the way. ... First of all, the internet is currently two dimensional – meaning the internet is not broadband. It doesn't really have live, fast big pictures. And little pictures in a computer screen. Soon though the internet will have broadband capacity. And that, by the way, is a chance for another reconstitution. What I'm worried about is that unless you think about this now, broadband may be controlled by the cable business. Because cable modems are the way to get real fast connections today. ...

But isn't it also the case that these big oligopolies, as you call them, have so much access and power and influence over the very authorities that you say are supposed to be asking questions in the public interest?

Yes. Such is life.

Such is life but what do the rest of us do? What does the public do?

Well, I think what the public does is say, "We've gotta have through our representatives, we have got to have a voice in this. Some voice."

And you want the government to do that for you?

Yes, of course I want the government to do it. Who else is gonna do it for us?

Bill Moyers is the host the weekly newsmagazine program "Now with Bill Moyers" on PBS.

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The Gathering Storm over Media Ownership

By Neal Hickey, Columbia Journalism Review

April 15, 2003

Editor's Note: Bringing the story up to date: The Federal Communications Commission whacked a hornet's nest with a stick on September 23, 2002, when it announced that it would take a hard look at all of its controversial rules on media ownership. On that day, Michael Powell, the commission's chairman, invited comments from the public about who can own what and how much in the media business. Instantly, the hornets began to swarm.

By the deadline for submissions, February 3, oceans of legal briefs had poured in from unions, trade associations, consumer activists, think tanks, academicians; the Newspaper Association of America, National Association of Broadcasters, Newspaper Guild, National Organization for Women, Sony, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, National PTA, American Psychological Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, United Church of Christ, and roughly 13,000 other groups and individuals.

All of them pointed out, in differing ways, that the FCC was embarking on nothing less than the most massive reexamination of media ownership rules in the agency's history, and that the outcome could have the most profound effects on how Americans get their news and information. Many of them argued that loosening the rules would cause a far greater concentration of media power in the hands of fewer and fewer huge companies – even more concentration than already exists – and the withering away of competition and diversity of viewpoints. Powell said that he and his fellow commissioners would review all the comments and evidence and hand down the new rules in late spring. And so the battle was joined, growing louder through the fall and winter.

While the FCC chief wanted to hold only two public hearings in New York City and Richmond, Va., on the rule change, Democratic commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Kopps, organized additional meetings in Duke University, Seattle, Wash., San Francisco, and Los Angeles to ensure greater public involvement. Over the past few months, the opposition to the proposed rule changes has steadily gathered momentum, binding together a broad and diverse group of allies. The last round of public hearings in San Francisco and Los Angeles on Apr. 26 and 27, attracted a large number of both ordinary citizens and activists speaking out passionately against media consolidation.

Thus far, there is little indication that Powell has changed his mind. Over the same weekend, he told Newspaper Association of America convention that the FCC plans to remove the cross-ownership ban which prevents newspapers form owning radio and TV stations in the same area. But with the FCC decision a mere month away, the fight over the future of U.S. media is growing ever more urgent with each passing day.

And the lines have been drawn. It is a strange battle, in a way, pitting journalists against their bosses, breaking up old alliances, and gathering momentum as the day of reckoning approaches.

In mid-January, Senator John McCain, the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, grilled all five FCC commissioners about the "monumental decisions" they were about to make that "will shape the future of communications forever." A Democratic senator, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, called for more voices in the nation's media, but not from "one ventriloquist." A passionate, daylong seminar was held at Columbia's law school ("the most important meeting taking place anywhere in America today," Commissioner Michael Copps told the symposiasts). In late February, the FCC held a hearing of its own in Richmond, Virginia, followed by two others (at the University of Washington and Duke) organized by Copps personally. Copps, a Democratic appointee, complained that the policy review was moving too fast, and that the issues should be ventilated far more publicly before any decisions were made. Powell sternly disagreed, saying that "you don't need a nineteenth century whistle-stop tour to hear from America."

Powell has regularly pointed out that reviewing the rules is no pet project of his own, but was mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (signed by President Clinton), requiring him to reexamine FCC regulations every two years and get rid of the dead wood. Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ordered the FCC to justify several of the rules or junk them.

Still, Powell's own view ("validate or eliminate" has been his cry) is that much ownership regulation no longer makes sense because it dates from the era when channels of information were scarce. Now, cable, the Internet, and direct-broadcast satellites are commonplace. His legal adviser, Susan Eid, puts it this way: "The chairman has long since advocated that, if you're going to do an honest evaluation of the rules, you have to look at the marketplace as it exists today, not how it looked thirty or forty years ago when we had black-and-white TV, no remote control, and three choices of TV programs." The presumption is on repeal of the rules, she says, unless hard evidence proves they serve the public interest. Powell has been at pains to reassure his critics that he plans no scorched-earth policy that would lay waste all regulation. But defenders of the public interest – Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Digital Democracy, and many others – fear that the FCC, with its GOP majority (three Republicans, two Democrats), will predictably facilitate Big Media's yen for the "efficiencies," the "synergies," and bottom-line values that come with gigantism. They fear those values will prevail at the expense of what's best for people who want to know what's going on in the world. Those advocates were not reassured in October when the FCC released twelve new elaborate studies of the media marketplace that, in total, suggested that media consolidation isn't such a bad idea. The consumerists countered that the studies were tainted and tilted, and that they telegraphed the commission's hidden intentions to favor Big Media at the expense of the public when the time comes to change the rules.

'Awful Things Will Happen'

One of the most contentious of the FCC regulations forbids a single company to own a newspaper and a television station in the same community. The Newspaper Association of America, whose member papers account for almost 90 percent of U.S. daily circulation, is ferociously campaigning to exterminate that rule. The twenty-seven-year-old ban is so archaic that it should end "without further comment or analysis," says the NAA's brief, because a mountain of evidence proves that cross-ownerships improve the quality and quantity of news and public affairs reporting without posing any real threat to competition and viewpoint diversity. John Sturm, president of the NAA, recalls that the cross-ownership rule was born in a different world a quarter century ago, and that "whatever it was designed to prevent or remedy is irrelevant now." He points to forty communities in the United States that have cross-ownerships (which existed before the rule, or got special waivers). No harm, he insists, has come to the public in those markets. "Our opponents' arguments are all theoretical – no data, just words. 'Awful things will happen,' they warned. Well guess what? Nothing awful has happened. What more evidence do we need? Case closed."

That doesn't satisfy Linda Foley, president of the 35,000-member Newspaper Guild, who fires from the opposite battlement: More cross-ownerships means jobs will be lost, and news consumers will receive a more homogenized diet of news and opinion. "The biggest impact is that we would have fewer and fewer people on the local level deciding what the news agenda is." The NAA-Guild difference of opinion dramatizes an unbridgeable chasm: The owners of newspapers generally want the ban lifted and the journalists who work for those papers generally don't. Reporters, columnists, and editorial writers – predictably – tend to think it's an unwise career move to publicly oppose their bosses' position on the matter, which may be why journalists have mostly failed to inform Americans about what's at stake here.

A few do speak out. At Knight Ridder's Philadelphia Inquirer, Henry Holcomb, a business writer, told CJR he worries about a corporate mentality that may try to "squeeze as many dollars as possible" out of a newspaper/TV combination and "blur all of the distinctive ways we try to stimulate and inform the public." Would TV people who acquired a newspaper be respectful of what they don't know about newspapering, he wonders? Will they understand the subtleties of print culture?

One voice in the wilderness among newspaper proprietors is Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, whose family has controlled the paper for generations. "Our opposition to cross-ownership runs against our own business interests," he says. Repeal of the rule would substantially increase the value of the Times. "It would eliminate a competitor and give us more control over the marketplace. If that's all we cared about, we'd be for it."

But he's sure that these clusters don't produce good journalism. "The Blethen family could benefit financially from repeal of cross-ownership," he says, "but I guarantee you that the citizens of Seattle would not benefit from it." Large newspaper chains and TV station groups covet these combinations out of self-interest, not the public interest, he says, because owning lots of media in one market lets you control advertising rates. "It's the public company mentality, that you have to keep getting bigger as the only way to drive earnings, stock prices, and the ceo's stock options." Editors of chain-owned newspapers are mostly silent about cross-ownership, Blethen says. "We're creating a whole generation of publishers and editors who don't have the independence to speak out on these issues on behalf of the public."

New Sources Of News?

As long ago as 1978, the Supreme Court in FCC v National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, wrote: "It is unrealistic to expect true diversity from a commonly owned station-newspaper combination. The divergence of their viewpoints cannot be expected to be the same as if they were antagonistically run." Defenders of the rule offer evidence that newspapers and television stations are by far the most popular sources of news and thus ought not be melded into one voice. But backers of deregulation are fond of pointing out that the Internet, cable, and direct broadcast satellites offer an array of choices that didn't exist a few decades ago, so no great damage is done by losing a journalistic voice or two in a community. Hold on, says the opposition: Virtually all of the major Internet sites that people use for news are owned by Big Media; the editorial content is indistinguishable from what those broadcasters and newspapers put out. Moreover, they point out, most Internet users go to the Web for national and international news, not local. And besides that, the Internet is not a mass medium, no matter what you may have heard: Little more than half of U.S. households have Internet connections, and among minorities and poor people, the figure is a lot lower.

On the cable side, concentration is already apparent: Two owners, Comcast and AOL Time Warner, serve 40 percent of cable households. All of the cable news networks – CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, CNNfn – are owned by three conglomerates: AOL Time Warner, GE, and News Corporation. Direct broadcast satellites? Two companies control virtually the entire industry, and recently, one of them (EchoStar) tried unsuccessfully to buy the other (DirecTV). Thus, most sources of news are tapped from the same old barrels.

'More Voices, Not Fewer'

Are TV networks too big for their boots? TV stations think so. The 1996 Telecom Act lets media companies like Viacom, GE, Disney, and News Corp. – which own, respectively, CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox – accumulate stations to their hearts' content, as long they reach no more than 35 percent of U.S. households. The networks have lobbied furiously to own more stations because many of those local outlets have huge profit margins of 40 percent or more (networks make far less), and because owning them would give the networks more power than they already have over what gets on the air nationally. To bolster their push to lift the ownership caps, networks claim that their owned-and-operated stations produce better local newscasts than independent stations do. No they don't, insist the indies. At the moment, CBS owns twenty-one stations; ABC, ten; NBC, thirteen; and Fox, thirty-three. Most other commercial stations have affiliate contracts with a network, but are owned by companies like A.H. Belo, Hearst-Argyle, Cox, and Post-Newsweek. Station groups like those think the TV networks already have too much influence, and believe that letting them gobble up more TV stations will give them a stranglehold on programming – news, public affairs, and entertainment.

The dispute has driven a wedge between the National Association of Broadcasters (whose board of directors is dominated by independent station owners) and the big TV networks, causing CBS, NBC, and Fox to quit the NAB in a huff. Dennis Wharton, an NAB vice-president, says: "We think the thirty-five-percent cap has been good for localism." An influential group called the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, which represents 600 stations, agrees. Its chairman, Alan Frank, the president of Post-Newsweek's station group, tells CJR: "We feel it's important for democracy that we have more voices, not fewer. Further consolidation is not good for the country. Our system of broadcasting is set up very clearly as being locally based. That's its strength."

The affiliated stations argue that independent stations are far more able than network-owned stations to preempt the network's prime-time programs when a major news story of local importance breaks. Still, networks often use sanctions built into affiliate contracts to muscle stations into running the network's menu of entertainment shows instead of local news coverage.

In September 2002, CBS strong-armed a Florida affiliate into airing the season premiere of 48 Hours instead of an important gubernatorial debate. NBC, during the 2000 political campaign, pressured its affiliates to run a baseball playoff game instead of a presidential debate. (Some refused.) ABC's affiliate in Dallas, home of American Airlines, had to fight the network for a few minutes of airtime during Monday Night Football halftime to present local news updates on the November 12, 2001, crash of an American Airlines jet. But the simple truth is that stations rarely preempt the network for local coverage lest they enrage viewers devoted to Survivor, The Bachelorette, and Joe Millionaire.

As with most of the ownership rules, the underlying debate is less about principle than about whose financial ox would be gored if the 35 percent cap were eliminated or eased. Affiliates (but not network-owned stations), collectively, haul in tens of millions of dollars every year for renting their airtime to the networks. That so-called "compensation" is found money for the affiliates and goes straight to the bottom line. They don't want to lose it. Networks, on the other hand, say they can't afford to pay it any longer and have made it no secret that they want to stop. Thus, the more stations a network can own outright, the more it can improve its revenue stream, eliminate compensation, and obviate those pesky preemptions that undermine audience ratings and advertising income. Hostile guns from many quarters are bearing on the 35 percent rule; however, the smart money is betting that the FCC will hedge its bet and raise the limit to 40 percent or 50 percent rather than discard it altogether.

'How Dare You?'

Among the other ownership rules, public advocates are especially averse to the notion of one company owning two television stations in the same community (so-called duopolies) and to letting any of the Big Four TV networks – CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox – buy out one of the others.

In 1999, the FCC relaxed its rules to allow common ownership of two TV stations in the same market as long as one of them isn't among the community's four leading stations, and eight others remain. About seventy-five such duopolies exist. For journalists, that often means combining news staffs and resources, reducing the richness of a community's news diet. In Los Angeles, for example, CBS's two stations share a news director, and so do Fox's. In New York, Fox's two stations will soon be under one roof. (Since 1995, the number of entities owning commercial TV stations has dropped 40 percent.)

The NAB argues that the FCC ought to okay these media marriages because some small TV stations are losing money, and if they go out of business, the community will lose one newsroom covering the local scene. In a new tack, the NAB recently upped the ante and began campaigning for triopolies in areas where stations are on shaky financial ground. (Viacom's president, Mel Karmazin, told a media conference in December: "How dare they say you can have only two stations in a market?")

At the national level, far more conspicuous consequences for news would result if, let us say, CBS took over NBC. (Viacom, CBS's parent, once expressed such an interest.) That can't happen now, but if the rule is altered, two news divisions inevitably would become one, giving viewers less choice in hearing about wars, elections, national policy, and the Washington ballyhoo. (Meanwhile, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw would suffer the indignity of sharing the anchor chores.)

In April 2002, NBC acquired Telemundo, the Spanish-language network, and promptly merged the two networks' newsrooms in Miami. The assumption, says Herta Suarez, AFTRA's national director of special projects, is that NBC will do the same in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, where both networks have news operations. "This will reduce opportunities for journalists to work," she says, "and also what the public will learn." (Suarez also laments that NBC pays Latino staffers less than Anglos for the same work.) Juan Gonzalez, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, says that the goal of giving Americans a diversity of opinions and analyses "has been virtually forgotten."

A 'Tragic Mistake?'

At the Columbia law school forum in January, chairman Powell confessed he is no fan of Congress's mandate that he review media ownership rules every two years. It's "regrettable and destabilizing" he said, to go through this torturous process so often. He added: "There will be rules when this is done [but] there won't be a rule that lets one person own everything."

That reductio ad absurdum was marginally reassuring to his opponents, but they hoped he would remain tightly focused on the crucial underlying principle, that the whole point of devising public policy is to do what's best for the people, not to guarantee corporations their desired "efficiencies" and "synergies," which is none of the FCC's business.

As USC's filing to the commission put it, the agency's mandate to regulate is driven by the First Amendment rights of the public, not the media owners. Safeguarding those rights has "been understood to permit restricting the media industry's natural desire to concentrate ownership in order to achieve economies of scale." Sandra Ortiz, author of the USC brief and executive director of the university's communications law center, says that the once-revered concept of local media ownership has become "so rare as to be almost quaint."

The Newspaper Guild's comments to the commission are equally unambiguous: "Media owners claim that relaxation of ownership rules will allow them to realize 'synergies.' [but] the commission's charge is to protect and enhance media diversity, competition, and local identity – not efficiency." AFTRA points out that media conglomerates, in hot pursuit of higher profits, customarily put heavy pressure on their newspapers and broadcast stations to cut costs, with negative consequences on the journalism. Once upon a time, says the union, broadcast stations competed for audience by doing the best possible local news. But media companies that dominate a market have little incentive to spend money on enterprisers and investigations. Depriving people of that "is to enter onto a slippery slope that will leave the public wondering whose 'truth' is being told."

Allowing further media concentration would be a "tragic mistake," says the veteran editor Gene Roberts, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. "Communities deserve to be looked at with different eyes. Even with the best integrity and most solid news principles in the world, what looks like a story to one person may not to another." Easing the rules, says Roberts, is "just going to make an already bad situation even worse. There's very little news competition in most parts of the country, and we're about to have even less."

That's how it looks now, anyway. Five unelected appointees, whom most Americans have never heard of, will make those decisions in the next few months. If they get it right this time, the hornets won't swarm quite so furiously two years from now when the rules come up for review all over again.

Neil Hickey is CJR's editor at large.

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