Turning the Tide
It's time to fight the Enronization of the media
by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney
In These Times magazine, April 2002
What would happen if multinational media corporations were
free to conglomerate and monopolize with even less regulation
than Enron faced in the energy sector? Would they avoid getting
too big because of the threat to democratic discourse? Or would
they choose to maximize profits by crossing every boundary of
communications technology to dominate what citizens see, hear
Anyone who has witnessed the patterns of media conglomeration
that followed deregulation of radio ownership after enactment
of the 1996 Telecommunications Act already knows the answer to
that question: The media companies will go for the market dominance
that assures untold profits. With a go-ahead from a federal judge
and preparations underway at the deregulation-happy Federal Communications
Commission to remove the last threads of the regulatory safety
net, some of the most powerful corporations in the world are planning
to build the sort of monopolies imagined by the authors of dystopian
The essential underpinnings of media reform are threatened
as never before. Don't get us wrong: We are not suggesting that
things are good now; and our concerns are not predicated upon
some longing for a mythological "Golden Age" when media
were good. American media have always been troublesome, and this
country desperately needs policies that increase the size and
power of the nonprofit and non-commercial media sector, as well
as rules limiting hyper-commercialism. But if the media are permitted
to consolidate in the manner now imminent, the prospects for any
alternative media policies will decline precipitously. That's
why this is everyone's fight.
On February 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District
of Columbia nullified a pair of long-standing government regulations
that had limited the size of media companies that use the public
airwaves. One rule prevented the same company from owning TV stations
and cable franchises in the same market. The other rule limited
the number of TV stations a single company could own.
The court sent the TV station ownership rule to the FCC for
review, which is great news for the media corporations. Even before
the appeals court ruling, FCC Chairman Michael Powell was working
to relax or eliminate these and other limits on media monopoly-including
the last barriers to a single corporation gaining dominance of
print, broadcast and cable communications in a single market.
Powell says he is determined to enact his "reforms"
as quickly as possible.
This deregulation, should it proceed, will result in an explosion
of corporate deal-making that will make the past decade of unprecedented
media conglomeration look like a Wednesday-night bingo game at
the local old-folks home. For the first time, media giants that
control TV station empires-Disney, News Corp., Viacom, General
Electric-would be able to merge with or acquire media empires
built on cable franchises, such as AOL Time Warner and AT&T-Comcast.
As Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff, puts it, the ruling
"allows for a powerful new entity we have never seen before-something
that combines both cable and broadcasting assets."
To see where the courts and the FCC are leading us, consider
what transpired following a similar deregulation of the radio
sector in 1996. Radio is now dominated by a handful of large firms,
like Clear Channel and Viacom, that have standardized content,
zeroed out local voices and revved up commercialism. Imagine a
similar scenario playing out in local television markets, toss
in an expected move to allow media corporations to own stations
in every market in the nation, and you have a recipe for what
Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union calls an "earth-shattering"
shift in media ownership patterns. He says, "The end result
could be the most massive consolidation in media this nation has
And the worst is yet to come. If the FCC eliminates the ban
on corporations owning TV stations and newspapers in the same
market, newspaper chains-Gannett, Knight-Ridder, the New York
Times Co., Tribune Co. and others-will be hooking up with the
aforementioned giants faster than you can say: "one source
of news." The trade press is filled with stories projecting
possible mega-deals. A Wall Street media industry analyst quips
that the prospect of deregulation says to the media conglomerates:
"Gentlemen, start your engines."
None of this is especially surprising. Historically, broadcast
policy decisions like these are made behind closed doors, where
powerful lobbyists pick their teeth with politicians' spines.
Already a good 10 times larger than the largest media firms of
the late '80s, today's media conglomerates see the federal court
ruling in their favor as the clearest victory in their three-pronged
grab for ownership deregulation-a push that is taking place in
the courts, on Capitol Hill and at the FCC. Years of lavish campaign
contributions, massive spending on lobbyists, and revolving-door
jobs for federal bureaucrats to work on behalf of the conglomerates
they once regulated have given media policymaking a stench familiar
to those who have followed the Enron scandal. And after 20 years
of rabidly pro-business appointments by Republican and Democratic
presidents, the federal courts are so in the sway of the neoliberal
fantasy that they can no longer be expected to step on the brakes.
But the story is not over. The tightening corporate noose
around the neck of our media system is indefensible by any known
theory of liberal democracy. As the public becomes aware of these
monopolies and deregulations, the promise of widespread opposition
across the political spectrum will be realized. That is why corporate
lobbies work so hard to keep deliberations over deregulation behind
closed doors. But the February appeals court ruling put the issue
on the front-pages of newspapers, and even drew a New York Times
editorial calling for a congressional intervention.
The one positive component of the court ruling was its rejection
of a claim by big media that regulation of media monopolies is
itself unconstitutional. This means that, even as Michael Powell
seeks to destroy the last limits on media monopoly, Congress could
reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful
members, such as Sen. Emest Hollings (D-South Carolina) and Rep.
John Conyers (D-Michigan) are interested in doing just that. And
Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has already introduced legislation
demanding that the FCC maintain current ownership guidelines and
that Congress hold major hearings to generate democratic media
ownership rules for the digital era. "These media companies
have been so greedy and so irresponsible that people across the
country are saying: We've got to do something about them,"
Sanders says. "The good news is that Congress can do something.
We have the authority to develop regulations to limit monopolies."
Sanders is the first to admit, however, that congressional
action will come only with a push from the people. And there are
signs that the people are beginning to push. A rally will take
place outside FCC headquarters in Washington on March 22 to protest
Powell's corrupt deregulation policies. Organized by Philadelphia-based
Media Tank and the Prometheus Radio Project, and sponsored by
scores of groups and individuals, the demonstration looks to be
the clearest signal yet of an upsurge of political organizing
around media policy issues. (For information, see www.mediatank.org.)
All progressive groups must recognize that, if our media system
continues on its present course, their ideas and concerns will
be "disappeared" from local media-as they already have
been from national media. These groups must forge the backbone
of a media reform organization that is capable of harnessing the
anger at the Enronization of our media system. As mighty as corporate
media have become in recent decades, the popular will for a diverse
and democratic media can and must be mightier still.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Our
Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media,
forthcoming from Seven Stories Press.