News: Backlash Against Big Media

FCC hears from public how media consolidation imperils democracy

Mar 14, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Stephen Novotni

At an FCC hearing, speakers from around the state presented testimony on the negative effects of media consolidation .

Columbus — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Connie Schultz said what passes for journalism in Ohio breaks her heart.

Schultz, a Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist and wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), was among more than 300 concerned citizens who attended public hearings on media ownership March 7 to voice their concerns about how big media has damaged their communities, stifled their voices and strangled public debate.

The testimony was heard by three of the five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — Democrats Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps and Republican Robert McDowell.

"I used to constantly monitor the radio stations," Schultz said. "I used to worry about what other newspapers in the area were going to do. I don't worry about that any more. Any story that involves any bit of investigation, I'm pretty much on my own."

Schultz said media consolidation and corporate mergers have meant that the media serves financial interests rather than the public interest. There are fewer reporters, lighter coverage and an anemic political discourse in the mainstream media, she said.

The toll these cuts have taken was apparent to her when she recently covered a story about a stockbroker who scammed his clients for millions of dollars.

"We were covering a particular hearing and a TV reporter showed up, and he didn't even know why he was there and what the hearing was about because he had just gotten diverted, and I actually gave him a copy of the pleadings because I just thought, 'We can't do business like this,' " Schultz said. "And this is a direct result of mergers and cutbacks and all these profit margins that they want to keep growing and growing, and what shrinks is your news coverage."

'I want a return'
As their schedules and finances have permitted, commissioners Copps and Adelstein — and now McDowell — have participated in public hearings around the nation to listen to public sentiment about their work. Adelstein said he has at times traveled at his own expense and described FCC Chair Kevin Martin as resistant to funding such events.

Josh Silver, executive director of the media policy organization Free Press, said the issues before the FCC are profound: Can a few companies own most of the media? Martin has expressed interest in lifting the ban on corporations owning newspapers and TV stations in the same market.

Will cable and telephone companies be allowed to construct Internet tollbooths that sell bandwidth to the highest bidder? Will public broadcasting continue to be funded?

"It's important when you look across the heartland in this country (that) it is conservatives and liberals who are nearly universally opposed to consolidation," Silver said.

Conservative Michael Garzano agreed. He said media needs to be regulated and you can't trust media that's beholden to corporate interests. He referred to National Public Radio as "National Pravda Radio," saying that his interests were poorly served by both left-leaning public media and Clear Channel's corporate agenda in the private sector.

Rich James of Yellow Springs said the idea of the airwaves being owned by the public is a joke and no citizen ever reaps the benefits.

"My airwaves are a trillion dollar profit engine, and I want a return on my investment," he said.

Instead, he said he gets news anchors showboating at charity events while providing almost no coverage of local civic groups; crime and celebrity have displaced meaningful government news; and the public these media companies are supposed to serve are looked at as "a demographic to be delivered instead of citizens to be served."

Who's unhappy?
Tom Bishop, executive director of Media Bridges, Cincinnati's public access TV station, described the past decade of FCC deregulation as a new era of the robber baron.

"They fear neither legislature nor commission nor citizen because they own so much already they can spin the discussion any way they choose, buy the influence necessary to write their own rules and use Americans' own property, the airwaves and the public right-of-way to feed them this Pablum," Bishop said.

Media Bridges' very existence has been threatened by deregulation. Cable companies pay franchise fees to local communities so they can run their wires in the public right-of-way — along telephone poles and underground throughout the country. A part of this fee pays for public access television. These fees have been whittled down in recent years by legislation pressed for by corporate lobbyists and FCC deregulation, potentially affecting the budget of Media Bridges.

Adelstein asked how many people in the room were unhappy with their media, and almost every hand went up. It's no random sampling — those attending are already fired up about this issue — but neither was it shilling. A growing chorus of voices across the country is opposed to media consolidation.

"Coming from Washington, D.C., we hear a lot about promoting freedom and democracy all over the world," Adelstein said. "What about improving the quality of democracy right here in America, right here in Ohio?"

Paige Clifton, a journalism student at Antioch University, said she's very concerned with the rehabilitation of local news because she intends to work at a city newspaper one day.

"There are local stories that must be covered by local people, or they won't be covered," she said. "There are national stories that must be covered by local people, or they won't be attended. If you get rid of local news or if you consolidate all the media so that there is no more local news, then you don't have local news and you don't have national news because you'll just have Washington's news." ©