The broadcasting industry's weak arguments on ownership

by Jonathan Lawson, Reclaim the Media

Public opinion on media ownership is clear -- we prefer local voices to consolidated national voices; we want local music and culture; we want a wide range of voices and viewpoints; we want quality journalism and media that is accountable to our commuity values. Opposing greater media consolidation is one of the few issues on which Congressional Democrats and Republicans mostly see eye to eye.

But there is a powerful elite who are pushing hard to change the rules of the media game -- and to make it a game of Monopoly. For example, the National Association of Broadcasters represent the big media corporations who stand to gain financially from making our media system even less accountable to local communities. Mark Allen, president and CEO of the of the Washington Association of Broadcasters, has an op-ed in this morning's Seattle Times; it's an interesting read because it lays bare the weak arguments the other side is making in favor of loosening (erasing) media ownership rules.

This morning I was a guest on KUOW's Weekday program, along with Allen, Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen and FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. Anyone who tuned in to hear Allen give an actual argument as to how loosening media rules would provide any public benefits, was disappointed. He did make one surprising admission. In response to a question about commercial radio's almost non-existent commitment to local news, Allen claimed that people didn't really want a range of radio news sources. He suggested that folks were happy just having one or two stations doing news (in fact, Seattle does have just two commercial stations with local newsooms, in a market comprising nearly 50 stations).

Here are a few excerpts from Mark's article (with my comments interspersed):

by Mark Allen, Washington Association of Broadcasters

It's easy to get swept up in the hysteria surrounding media-ownership rules, easy to bash big media, and easy to blame the world's ills on the messenger.

Opponents of modernizing the ownership rules want the Federal Communications Commission to view the world with blinders, to ignore the myriad of changes brought on by new technologies, and to continue to believe that the media marketplace exists today as it did in the 1970s.

Comment: Like other big corporate interests, Big Media's favorite trick is to pretend that marketplace deregulation is a force of nature or simply "reality," rather than a deliberately constructed policy decision favoring one set of values (elite power) over another (access to diverse information, democracy). Remember that we're talking about private control over public resources - the public airwaves. Will this resource be used to serve the public, or just a small class of wealthy business owners? That's a question of political decisionmaking, not nature or "reality."

But here's the reality: There are nearly twice as many radio stations today as there were in 1970. Cable and satellite channels have increased the number of stations available on American television from an average of five in the 1970s to more than 500 today.

Comment: Many channels, but few voices. Just six corporations control more than half of everything Americans watch, listen to, or read every day. That's an astonishing level of concentrated media power, and it's still trending in the wrong direction (two decades ago, people were shocked that just 25 companies controlled most media, that number has only shrunk since then).

And, when the Internet is added to the equation, the number of available voices jumps to the nearly infinite. The simple fact is that Americans today have access to more independent voices than at any point in our history.

Comment: The Internet is not a panacea. Among people who look online for news and entertainment, a great majority are going to sites owned and controlled by the same media megacompanies that own broadcast properties. This is not simply because the big media content is so fantastic, but because they are able to leverage their dominance of the broadcast and newspaper industries to boost their online visibility. It matters a great deal who owns what, on the Internet as well as off. Also, the Internet may not be as free as we like to think it is. There's a raging debate over Net Neutrality, or whether all content on the Internet is created equal. If big telecom corporations win that battle, big media companies will have an even more lopsided advantage online.

Despite what can only be described as a multimedia revolution over the past several decades, many of the FCC's rules that restrict local radio and television stations remain intact -- including the archaic newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban...

Comment: The broadcasting lobby calls the cross-ownership ban "archaic" because there is simply no rational argument to be made that it's good for democracy to allow a single company to control the newspaper, TV stations and radio stations in the same city or town. That kind of concentrated media power translates precisely into shrinking newsrooms and narrowing of political debate.

...People in Seattle turn to their local broadcasters for critical, up-to-the-minute news and emergency information they need and that, because they are local, broadcasters are uniquely positioned to provide. Local stations reflect the cultural richness of our city and state through a variety of locally produced content, covering Seattle's famously eclectic music scene, politics and other community-oriented issues.

Comment: Seattle has better radio than most cities in the US -- better than in rural areas such as Minot, North Dakota where, thanks to deregulation, there were no local announcers on the air able to provide information during a disaster. However, even in Seattle, out of 49 radio stations on the air, only five have local news departments -- including NPR and community stations.

It is simply hilarious to suggest that media deregulation is in any way supportive of either local or eclectic music. As Seattle music industry leaders have pointed out in the past, the national explosion of a regional music scene such as Northwest 'grunge' in the early 90's, would be absolutely unimaginable in the post-1996 consolidated radio industry, with its centralized gatekeepers, "voicetracking" fake-local DJs and payola.

Detractors say that the time is not right for reform, and regulators are rushing to judgment. This ignores reality as well. The FCC has spent the better part of the past decade studying the effect of media-ownership rules...

Comment: We need policies designed to give us more, not less, media ownership by minorities; more, not less, media access for Native Americans and immigrants; more, not less, community access to the airwaves; more, not less, quality journalism instead of racist/sexist shock-jocks and overheated hackery. That's just common sense - and it's diametrically opposite the path that Mark Allen and the NAB would send us down.

This Friday night, let's show the FCC and the country (Pacifica Radio will be broadcasting the hearing live) that Seattle chooses democratic media values over Big Media's corporate greed!

article originally published at .

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