Questions and answers on media ownership

Q: Why is "media ownership" an issue?

A: In past decades, the US government placed limits on the number of newspapers, radio and TV stations which a single company could own nationally, or within a particular market. These rules support democratic values by helping ensure the public has access to multiple voices and opinions in a diverse media culture. Since the Reagan administration, however, these rules have been under attack by corporate media owners who wish to expand without regulatory checks and balances. After the industry-supported Telecommunications Act of 1996 abolished limits on national radio ownership, hundreds of radio stations were gobbled up by increasingly large owners. Clear Channel ballooned from 40 stations to over 1200; local ownership became rare, and minority ownership nearly extinct. Concentrated ownership encourages owners to enact cost-saving measures such as shrinking or abolishing news departments, "voice-tracking" fake local DJs, reducing the number of independent voices on the air.

Q. Still, why should I care about who owns corporate TV, cable and radio? Corporate media all sucks anyway, and I get my news and entertainment from the Internet, or through my cell phone or iPod.

A. Most of the news and entertainment we get online or off is still owned by the same handful of megacorporations; most online news still originates from daily newspapers. The business practices of these companies have real effects on the news we depend on. Their cost-cutting "economies of scale" do further damage to our access to local news coverage and diversity of viewpoints, and their utter dependence on corporate advertising dollars makes them less likely to air controversial topics or take a risk on a new artist.

Q: What is the status of media ownership now?

A: As late as 1983, 50 companies owned the majority of all U.S news media. By 1990, this number had dwindled down to fewer than two dozen. Now - largely thanks to the enormous deregulation the 1996 Telecommunications Act provided - that number is now six. Media consolidation continues today at an astonishing pace, and media companies are pushing for further de-regulation. While some big companies like Clear Channel, Tribune and Viacom have begun to sell off properties - feeling shareholder pressure to keep profits up – these selloffs are unlikely to benefit local or minority ownership.

Q. The FCC Republicans are in the majority—won't they probably just vote to cut the ownership rules anyway, no matter how many millions of people tell them not to?

A. Yep, that's basically the size of it. That's what happened in 2003, when the FCC leadership completely ignored millions of public comments opposing media ownership deregulation. But that wave of comments got the attention of Congress--and even some of the media—and set the stage for the ultimate defeat of that FCC decision by the Federal courts. Even if the FCC ignores us now, it's highly likely that a powerful citizens' movement will be able to pressure Congress to overrule the FCC by legislating stronger ownership regulations. The media democracy movement which has emerged over the last few years offers some of the clerest examples of how ordinary people can unite behind their shared values and have an effect on bad federal policies--even when their opponents are corrupt politicians and filthy rich corporate tycoons.

Myths and facts about media ownership:

Myth: The media's only "agenda" is informing its consumers.

Fact: The media's most deliberate and systematic bias is almost entirely unaddressed: the media's corporate bias. 51 of the world's 100 largest economic entities are corporations, meaning that the majority of the world's major economies are businesses whose primary accountability is to their shareholders. As some of the world's largest corporations. Media corporations’ self-interest--to expand, increase profits, quash competition, and lower costs-- trumps other considerations.

Myth: There is enough diversity of opinion in the media, and especially in blogs on the Internet, that regulation is unnecessary.

Fact: While Internet news consumption is growing, it is still dwarfed by cable and broadcast news consumption. Plus, Internet news readers are mostly relying on online counterparts to large broadcast outlets or newspapers. High-speed Internet access remains unfortunately linked to class indicators such as income and educational level; proposed changes to Congressional Telecom legislation will reinforce, rather than change this situation. Finally, if we lose Net Neutrality protections, the Internet will no longer be the infinitely free "marketplace of ideas" we are used to.

Myth: Media just gives the people what they want, otherwise they'll change the channel.

Fact: In their quest for high returns, media conglomerates frequently sacrifice content for profit. For example, Radio conglomerate Clear Channel saves enormous amounts of money by standardizing program formats--and consolidating staff--for its 1225 stations. Local listeners have almost no ability to influence what they hear on local stations.

Myth: Large media businesses can report news just as well as smaller ones, if not better.

Fact: Not surprisingly, big media companies’ economic motivations often work against their public service obligations and the journalistic values of TV news departments. Local news--even lightweight or badly produced local news--is more expensive than video news releases or network filler. In fact, in 2004 the FCC produced a study confirming a distinct correlation between local ownership and more local news. Unfortunately, the FCC leadership at the time ordered that study destroyed, and it was only leaked two years later.

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