The Federal Communications Commission is about to make big, powerful media corporations in this country even bigger and more powerful.
It now appears all but certain that the FCC will vote -- probably Monday -- to significantly relax the ownership rules that have long kept alive, if only barely, a sense of competition and independence among the nation's news media.
It's a mistake with ominous portents for what little is left of true media diversity in this country -- and, more important, it will be a damaging blow to a citizenry that is increasingly force-fed a news diet so narrow and nutrition-deficient that intellectual scurvy sometimes seems inevitable.
If you think local TV news is bad now, if you think there's a stultifying sameness to most of what passes for news and commentary in the electronic media today, wait till you see what happens when Rupert Murdoch and Mickey Mouse rule the world.
The FCC is expected to drop its ban on a company owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in a large or medium-sized market. It is also expected to increase the number of TV stations a company can own in single market -- and to increase from 35% to 45% the maximum number of U.S. households that any one company can reach with its television stations. (In reality, the 45% figure will be higher, since the FCC is also expected to retain the arcane rule that counts two viewers as one for UHF stations.)
The major beneficiaries of these changes would be such corporate giants as Murdoch's News Corp. (which owns Fox), Viacom (which owns CBS), General Electric (which owns NBC), Disney (which owns ABC), Gannett (which owns USA Today), Tribune Co. (which owns The Times) and AOL Time Warner (which owns everything else). All have been eager buyers -- expansionists in a shrinking market -- and the new rules are likely to encourage them, and others, to grow ever larger. Tribune, for example, bought The Times in 2000, confident that the FCC would ultimately change its rules and say that Tribune's ownership of KTLA-TV was not a barrier to acquisition of The Times.
Moot points? Look again
The argument in favor of relaxed ownership rules is as simple as it is misleading. The proliferation of cable channels and the birth and growth of the Internet, it is said, render moot the old concerns about monopolies and limited consumer choices.
It's certainly true that the advent of cable and the Internet have contributed to a steady decline in the audience for newspapers and network television, and made it more difficult for the owners of those businesses to make the kinds of huge profits to which they'd grown happily accustomed. But the major news channels on cable TV are Fox (owned, as noted above, by News Corp.), CNN (owned by AOL Time Warner) and MSNBC (owned by General Electric).
What about the Internet -- the ultimate outlet for the little guy, where anyone can post or read anything at any time? The last time I looked, CNN was the most popular Web site for news. MSNBC was second, followed by Time magazine and the New York Times. ABC, Fox News, the Washington Post and USA Today were also in the top 10.
According to the FCC's own data, only 6% of people surveyed cite the Internet as their most important source for news -- and as these rankings show, even those 6% are largely reliant on the journalistic Goliaths.That same set of data -- an FCC study prepared by Nielsen Media Research in September -- shows that 57% of the people surveyed said TV is their primary source of news; 23% cited newspapers.
Network television ownership has always been concentrated in the hands of the few, and in recent decades, that's become increasingly true of newspapers as well. Eighty years ago, there were more than 2,000 daily papers in this country. Now there are 1,468 -- and just five companies own the papers that account for almost 40% of the combined circulation of those 1,468. Ten companies control more than half the circulation.
As chain ownership has grown, so has an obsession with the bottom line and a drive to cut news staff and news space -- and to replace substance with scandal, sensationalism and superficiality in an effort to attract an increasingly splintered and distracted audience.
Newspapers aren't as bad as television in this regard -- yet. There's been no print equivalent -- yet -- of "American Idol." There are still a few -- but only a few -- serious, excellent newspapers in this country.
But it's local news where concentration of media ownership causes the most problems. There probably is enough news available from a variety of sources about, say, a war or a presidential race. But how about a school board race? A local bond issue? A zoning dispute?
Those are virtually the exclusive domain of local newspapers and local TV stations. Among respondents in the FCC survey, 43% said TV was their primary source for local news; 31% said newspapers. Only 9% said the Internet.