The fate of our media hangs in the balance

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by Greg Bloom (The Chronicle)
March 28, 2003

Most Americans are completely unaware of an impending decision that will decide the fate of our media for decades. An equally distressing majority of people are unaware that a decisive moment in this process will occur right here at Duke.

This Monday, from 12:30 to 5 p.m. in the School of Law (Room 3043), the Federal Communications Commission will hold a public hearing. The topic is proposed legislation that would allow the current oligopoly of five media giants to extend its control in frightening and potentially irreversible directions. This hearing is one of a handful to be held before the FCC's decision - one of the only chances for the public to defend itself. In classic Duke fashion, there has been a failure to generate any interest. But anyone who reads newspapers, listens to radio or watches television should be very interested indeed.

It's a shame that something so vastly important is also so boring to discuss. Observe: In 1996, the Telecommunications Act removed key barriers to concentrated media ownership, a deregulation that resulted in drastic consolidation of independent radio outlets. Hello, anyone still with me? I'll try again: The public no longer truly owns the radio airwaves.

It wasn't always this way. Radio stations once employed real humans who gave local news broadcasts, played actual pieces of vinyl and maintained an accountable presence within their community. Currently, almost one-half of all Americans listen to radio owned by Viacom or Clear Channel. (The latter controls more than 1200 stations.) With a few marginal, threatened exceptions, an antenna only shill product while ten McSongs of the week cycle through the time between ads.

The changes now on the table would continue radio deregulation and extend similar relaxation to television and print media as well. As a result, a single corporation could dominate a majority of the nation's televisions and could perhaps control every channel in a local market. If other laws against horizontal expansion (cross-ownership) are repealed, it is quite conceivable that a single company could control every newspaper, TV and radio channel in a city.

The FCC chairman fervently supports deregulation. When asked what he thought was meant by "public interest," he once replied that he had "no idea." His name is Michael Powell. Colin is his dad. Colin is on the board of AOL-Time Warner. (You have permission to scream and shake your fist at the sky.)

Powell claims that the information age has created infinite possibilities for information distribution, rendering obsolete all protections that were originally erected to maintain diversity in a limited spectrum of airwaves. There are supposedly unlimited resources that can fill the vacuum left by a bought-out local news apparatus. In the meantime, the argument goes, the companies have to eliminate competition in order to remain
competitive. It will even be argued, with a straight face, that more powerful corporations will foster free speech because they will be less afraid to criticize the government.
None of this should make sense to any citizen of a democracy, no matter what their political ideas are - the Internet is great and all, but e-zines and weblogs don't really substitute for a local newspaper. But for the sake of argument, we can look to what has happened to radio since the initial wave of deregulation. Record labels now have to pay radio stations to play their music; in turn, the public is exposed to a smaller, mercenary group of prefab "artists," while record companies still sell the same amount of albums. An analogy of the interests at stake between record industry/radio and government/news is too close for comfort.

How about something more life-threatening: In Miami after Hurricane Andrew, we had several radio channels, in several languages, to give critical updates on where to find water, shelter and spare provisions; during the ice storm this last December, only two radio stations (WPTF and WCHL) broadcasted information -- both would be threatened if faced with further deregulation. That means that when the s--- hits in a disaster - terror or otherwise - you can trash your bunker radio and use the batteries in a water purifier, 'cause there ain't nobody out there to listen to.

How about something threatening to the entire social and political realm: The Clear Channel is sponsoring massive pro-war rallies across America. The existence of pro- war rallies is just fine. The fact that they are made possible by a media demigod is terrifying. This company is owned by the man who purchased the Texas Rangers and made George W. Bush a multimillionaire, a man who is close friends with the Bush family. This company decided that 157 songs, - including Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and John Lennon's "Imagine" - were inappropriate for the American public in the months after Sept. 11.

There was a discussion about all this on National Public Radio last Wednesday. Various evidence against the willingness or capability of corporations to preserve news integrity was presented by callers and affirmed by members of the panel, which included Public Policy professor and media guru Susan Tifft. In response, the panel's deregulation advocate offered: "You got me there."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey