Below are some articles about the Midwest Forum on Media Ownership, April 2, 2003
By Karen Young
"We have built-in checks to government control, but not corporate control." With this statement, University of Chicago media historian Gretchen Soderlund neatly described why free speech is an endangered species in America. The Midwest Public Forum on Media Ownership, where Soderlund spoke, was an opportunity for people to document the effects of corporate mergers on the media, and to put forth their ideas for how government media policy should promote, not only diversitry in ownership, but also in the ideas that are expressed.
Jan Schakowsky, Representative of the IL 9th District, could not be present, but sent a statement of support. Many have noted radio behemoth Clear Channel's lopsided support for pro-war sentiments, and Schakowsky added to the evidence with Clear Channel's refusal to run anti-war advertising in Chicago featuring her and fellow Representative Danny Davis. Saying, "This is what happens when ownership is consolidated," she called for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.
The Forum kicked off with a discussion of "Media and Democracy: The History of Media Regulation," featuring Soderlund, moderator Craig LaMay of the Medill School of Journalism, and economist Steven Wildman. Soderlund illustrated her point about corporate control by talking about how muckraking newspapers as far back as the 19th century were destroyed by advertiser boycotts. Wildman noted soberly that "the debate is unbalanced" because while we have lots of ways to measure the economic impact of media consolidation, we really don't have tools to measure the soc ial impact. He said the FCC has identified specific areas where media should be diverse, including viewpoint, outlet, source, and program; he would add "access."
"Access" was the subject of the second panel discussion: how consolidation has affected who has access to the marketplace of ideas, including the political marketplace. Shaun Sheehan of the Tribune Company insisted that his company is very committed to local news, as that is the key differentiator for broadcast TV against cable, and that it would remain so if it were allowed to own more TV stations. Andy Meppen of the Writers Guild East begged to differ, noting that that had not been the result when TV stations in New York came under common ownership. He pointed out that co-owned WOR and Channel 5 in New York run exactly the same news, with the only difference being the logo in the corner. He added, "The corporations are doing their job of creating more profits through efficiency." He also highlighted the loss of a uniquely local radio station, WEVD, to consolidation. WEVD was named after socialist Eugene V. Debs and was long owned by local newspaper the Jewish Forward; now it is the second all-sports staton in the market.
Sheehan said the Tribune Company encourages all their stations to run political debates and it's not their fault that candidates, especially incumbents, don't always want to appear. (They may "encourage" Tribune stations to run debates, but in the last political cycle in Chicago, the encouragement was ignored.) Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause and a former state legislator, called for a return to free airtime for political candidates. She noted that when she was a candidate, citizens always came up to her to talk about the debates, and that if stations assume people don't watch debates, they are wrong.
Barbara Popovic of CAN-TV (Cable Access Network) invoked the pride of Chicago, its 20 miles of public lakefront, as an example of what the media could and should be. She gave the 300 shows on local elections run on CAN-TV in the last election cycle, as evidence that public access television does what no other electronic media can. Stations, as well as cable companies, should pay fees, taxes and rents to use the public airwaves, and that funding should be used to support public access. She noted that cable giant Comcast had tried to strangle public access funding and that competition among cable companies is critical to maintaining this important outlet.
Aaron Strong, a citizen in the audience, made the point that certain kinds of people are invisible in commercial media, even though the public has interest in them, saying: "Welfare isn't covered because 'no one wants to read about poor people,' yet "Nickel and Dimed" [Barbara Ehrenr eich's book about what it's like to live on the minimum wage] is a a best seller."
Also in the comment section, Scott Sanders, a member of the event's organizing committee and Chicago Media Action, stated that media consolidation's restriction of access is "patently obvious". He referred to "the bloody lies of our time" and advanced local peace and media reform organizations' negotiations with Chicago PBS outlet WTTW for live, public forums including independent documentaries that address issues of concern to working people.
The final panel was about programming diversity. Sherman Kizart of the Black Broadcasters Alliance, speaking about the importance of blacks having access to media ownership, opined that "without WVON, there would have been no Harold Washington; without WBLS, no David Dinkins [black- owned stations that supported non-establishment black mayoral candidates in Chicago and New York]."
Panelist Ed Marszewski of Lumpen Magazine then wondered aloud if without the right-wing dominance of commercial media, we would now have a President Bush. Kizart also supported the reinstatement of the Minority Tax Certificate, which was eliminated in 1996. He pointed out that although there are now more black-formatted stations, there are fewer black owners. Leo Henning of WGEM-AM/FM/TV in Quincy, IL, said that there was more diversity of coverage than ever, and that "80 channels represent every viewpoint." When asked how he knew that every viewpoint was represented, he had no answer except to say that viewership was high, which he took to mean that everyone must be satisfied. Tom Carpenter of AFTRA added that programming diversity was clearly damaged by consolidation, giving examples of Tribune television reporters being asked to "re-purpose" (that is, recycle) their stories in the newspaper, and CBS fighting for broad "cross-purposing" of content across their radio and television properties.
Ed Marszewski of Lumpen Magazine said that discovering an alternative newspaper during the first Gulf War, when he was in college, "completely changed his planet," and that is why he founded his magazine. He said that "the diversity of knowing what products to buy" coming from commercial media is not enough, and that Michael Powell should recuse himself from the ownership debate because his father is on the board of AOL Time Warner. Marszewski also said that media policy should include "hundreds of new community stations" and lower mailing costs to level the playing field for small publications.
About 150 people turned out for the forum, in spite of very limited advance press coverage. The Chicago Tribune hasn't run any news stories on the issue, only pro-deregulation editorials. When asked why his employer hadn't sent any reporters to the forum or mentioned that it was coming up, the Tribune Company's Shaun Sheehan said he "didn't tell reporters what to write" and that "there is an article" in that day's paper in the business section. The "article" was actually a column about Clear Channel, and mentioned that Commissioner Copps "would be in Chicago today" - no time, no place, no public forum.
Newspaper columnists around the country have taken the lead in talking about media ownership, and some local columnists in Chicago have been vocal as well. Tribune rock critic Greg Kot has consistently written about the issue, and mentioned the forum both in his column and on his WXRT radio show, "Sound Opinions."
Columnists at the alternative paper, the Reader (Michael Miner), and the suburban Daily Herald (Ted Cox) have provided insightful coverage. The public radio station, WBEZ, led its local news program that day with a 12-minute story on media ownership, mentioning the forum briefly.
Commissioner Michael Copps mentioned in his introductory remarks that "you can't let it end here [with attending the forum]." He made it clear that people need to organize and keep pressuring Congress and the media to let the public's voice be heard on media ownership.
By Mitchell Szczepanczyk
The Midwest Forum on Media Ownership consisted of three panels: (1) Media and Democracy: The History of Media Regulation, (2) Media Input: The Effect of Media Consolidation on Access, (3) Media Output: The Effect of Media Consolidation on Programming Diversity. Each panel was followed by a question-and-answer interchange, and then by an opportunity for public comment. The entire event was taped by CAN-TV which will air the forum and will also, I'm told, make the forum available for download on the internet.
The event kicked off with a read statement of support from one of the few really left people really left in Congress, Representative Jan Schkowsky, 9th District (who gave her regards and had an assistant of hers read some remarks).
Michael Copps, FCC Commissioner and who helped to increase awareness of this issue, gave some remarks about how the FCC is trying to forge ahead with its deregulation proposal, to "let the genie out the bottle" as he put it. The problem of course is how to get the genie back into the bottle, which Mr. Copps said, you can't. Which is why these hearings and related actions are vitally important: as bad as things are regarding media quality, they're poised to get a whole lot worse.
Throughout the event, the audience of some 120 or so people appeared to be hostile to big business interest. I don't think that there was ANYONE in the entire audience who was supporting the profit rights of media conglomerates. Count that as a small victory to concerned activists and citizens who knew about (and helped organize!) the hearing and chose to come. When Michael Miner writes [scroll to the bottom] that the working press stayed home, he wasn't kidding.
The first panel, moderated by Craig Lamay of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was the smallest of the afternoon. It consisted of just two panelists: Gretchen Soderlund (University of Chicago media historian), and Steven Wildman (Michigan State University economist). Gretchen gave a capsule history of media ownership in the course of the history of the United States. Steven talked about the economics of the media, and the difficulty inherent to gauging slippery concepts like localism, diversity, and the public interest.
Steven pointed out that the intellectual framework for quantifying and specifying issues to media, like localism, diversity and the public interest, are still immature. Here's a future suggestion for media activists: We should be working to develop the maturity in these concepts and the tools; it can serve as an arguing point and a specific stick against private media interests and for popular media development.
The next panel, on media input, had six speakers. The first--Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, who in her talk told the story of how her local radio station in Maine fought tooth and cliche against Clear Channel to prevent them from buying up. Chellie's talk was immediately followed by a talk from Dave Crowl, Senior Vice President Midwest for Clear Channel Radio.
Crowl mentioned a handful of examples (probably the ONLY examples) of Clear Channel preserving and maintaining local diversity--not cancelling some local bowling shows, that sort of thing. And he prefaced each of his examples by saying that he had a "really great example" to buttress his point.
Well, in the public comment period, I had a really great example of Clear Channel's risk not just to our media environment, but as a public health risk: Minot, North Dakota, which saw a late-night chemical spill in December 2002. Clear Channel owned six radio stations and nobody was around for an hour and a half when police came by to asked them to broadcast an alert. That delay forced the hospitalization of some 300 residents who weren't notified in time.
This concern for responsive localism was echoed by the next panelist, Andy Meppen, Writer's Guild of America, who mentioned specifics of local media concerns on the East Coast. Andy was followed by Shaun Sheehan, Vice President of the Tribune Company (evil!) who said he also worked for 18 years as a lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters (double evil!).
With credentials like that, Sheehan wound up being--in my opinion--the day's biggest pinata. This quickly became apparent during the question and answer sessions and comment period. For example:
Sheehan was followed by Barbara Popovic, the Executive Director of CAN-TV, who mentioned that media consolidation would likely reduce the budget of CAN-TV. Interesting factoid: CAN-TV broadcasts on five channels on a total annual budget that's less than the cost of a single Super Bowl commerical.
After lunch, came the last panel of the day, one on Media Output: The Effect of Media Consolidation on Programming Diversity. Leo Henning, the VP and GM of WGEM radio and television in Quincy, Illinois, spoke about the benefits of media consolidation in Quincy. I remain skeptical; consolidation tends to put more and more media consumers in a network ghetto. Leo did put taste his shoelaces during the Q&A when he remarked the decision for media content rests on the editors, not the owners. (I forget: Who hires the editors?)
Ed Marszewski, of Lumpen magazine and Select Media and VersionFest fame, was in my opinion the star of the panel. His forthrightness felt a bit out of place, but overall it proved to be much more of an asset than a liability. He remarked that if you have a narrow media system, you can "Kiss your democracy goodbye!" He followed up on an audience suggestion that Michael Powell's presence on the FCC Commission may prove to be a conflict of interest since his father is secretary of state (the confilct of interest involves favorable media coverage of the war). Ed offered the suggestion that citizens should work with attorneys at Northwestern University School of Law to begin impeachment proceedings.
Tom Carpenter, the National Director for AFTRA's news and broadcasting division, spoke next. As loquacious as I've been for everyone else, I must admit that I can't remember anything offhand from Tom's remarks offhand. My apologies, Tom.
Sherman Kizart of the Black Broadcasters Alliance was next. Sherman made the point that black-owned and black-run media was influential in campaigns of black politicians. Without WVON radio, there wouldn't have been a Harold Washington. (Ed followed up with this by saying that without a right-wing media machine, there wouldn't have been a George W. Bush.)
Then came Zemira Jones, president and general manager of ABC Radio Chicago, and a self-described "principled advocate of deregulation." He was the second biggest punching bag of the day, as most of the questions during the subsequent Q&A period were addressed to him. Jones handled the most pointed questions heard that day, and he handled the questions cooly, usually but just ignoring or sidestepping the issues, among them:
Why isn't a camera crew from WLS here?
Why does Disney (which owns ABC) use third-world sweatshop labor for its products? (You won't see John Stossel touch that with a ten-foot pole.)
Why does ABC have to resort to using commericials?
To his credit, Jones offered a standing invitation to the audience to discuss these and other media issues. 190 North State St., 8th Floor. Or you can contact him electronically. Perhaps someone should organize a video shoot, perhaps create another Roger and Me. (Zemira and Me?)
Last was Jeff Holmes of Street Level Youth Media, referred to affectionately during the Q&A by moderator Karen Young as the "quiet Beatle". Jeff's panel time was the shortest of all the panelists (he finished before his time expired). I spoke with him one-on-one after the forum ended and he struck me as knowledgeable and articulate. Perhaps not one for public speaking?
The longest question of the day was asked by the gentleman who sat right behind me asked the panel to grade the media's performance of fulfilling the FCC's mandate, from A to F. I swear it probably took about 15 minutes for all of the panelists to discuss the matter in turn and answer the question. The grades varied from A to F, depending on how corporate you were. Jones and Henning gave grades of A and B respectively. Tom gave a grade of an F, if I recall.
All in all, a most informative and uplifting afternoon. My kudos to Northwestern University School of Law and the organizers. Let's do this again after the FCC vote happens in June. We may need to.
By Ted Cox, Chicago Daily Herald (April 10, 2003)
What if they held a critical Federal Communications Commission forum and nobody came?
That is, what if none of the major mass-media conglomerates with issues pending before the FCC bothered to come out and cover it at all?
More than 100 concerned citizens attended an FCC forum on media ownership at Northwestern University's downtown School of Law last week. That included the FCC's Michael Copps, one of five commissioners who will soon be voting on U.S. media ownership regulations.
"Apart from war and peace," he said in an opening statement, "no issues confronting America are as important."
Yet not a single corporate-owned Chicago media outlet covered it - not the local network TV affiliates, not the Viacom-owned Infinity Broadcasting all-news radio outlet WBBM 780-AM, not the downtown daily newspapers, not local network TV affiliates, not the Viacom-owned Infinity Broadcasting all-news radio outlet WBBM 780-AM, not the downtown daily newspapers, not Tribune-owned WGN-TV Channel 9, not even its cable "news" sibling, CLTV. In fact, although the ownership "reforms" being considered threaten to dramatically alter the media landscape, for the most part in favor of those corporate owners, the proposed deregulation has received almost no coverage on TV or radio or in newspapers.
"The media have not done a very good job of teeing this dialogue up for the American people," Copps said. "I haven't seen the first network report on media ownership."
"The Tribune has barely covered the issue," pointed out panelist Gretchen Soderlund, a University of Chicago communications professor. Yet the Tribune Co. figures to profit greatly from an end to the ban on cross-ownership between newspapers and TV and radio stations. (The Trib's ownership of Channel 9 and WGN 720-AM was grandfathered in prior to the 1975 regulation, but an end to the ban would free its hand in other markets.)
When Disney's Zemira Jones, who runs all-talk WLS 890-AM, alternative-rock WZZN 94.7-FM and, to a lesser extent, all-sports WMVP 1000-AM, made a dismissive remark about the lack of public interest in this media-ownership debate, Ed Marszewski, publisher of Lumpen magazine, snapped back,
"Maybe there'd be more people here if you actually talked about it on your radio stations."
In short, the time has come to label this what it is: a conspiracy of silence.
The FCC, the body appointed by the government to oversee the publicly owned broadcast airwaves, is a willing co-conspirator. Bush-administration FCC Chairman Michael Powell has pooh-poohed the public interest and set a date of June 2 for votes on limits set for corporate radio ownership, network ownership of TV stations and cross-ownership.
Not only has Powell set an early date for deciding these critical issues, he has rebuffed Copps' attempts to stir public debate, refusing to allot FCC funds for public forums. Last week's forum, held in a stately Lincoln Hall lecture room modeled after the British House of Commons, was actually sponsored by NU's Media and Entertainment Law Society with the help of Chicago Media Watch, a local grassroots organization.
Why all the silence? Because the media corporations and Powell, whom Soderlund labeled "pro-big-media," understand that if the public realizes that it's their interest and their ownership of the airwaves at stake, the "reforms" will lose.
"I think the public believes it is their right to have fair coverage, and they don't even realize what's been lost over the last two decades," said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. "I think the public has much more interest in this issue than we give them credit for."
Barbara Popovic, director of Chicago Access Network-TV, drew a splendid parallel between Chicago setting aside the lakefront for public access - a long-term good at the cost of free corporate expansion - and the benefits of assuring public access to the media.
Soderlund, whose area of expertise is media history, pointed out the government has always needed regulations to impose the public interest on broadcast media. By contrast, Tribune Co. Vice President Shaun Sheehan argued that limits on media ownership are limits on free speech - a "disingenuous" position of "audacity" and "arrogance," in the words of members of the audience.
Corporations seem to seize the high road with their arguments for free speech, free markets and less government intrusion. Michigan State professor Steven Wildman pointed out it's much more difficult to argue effectively for "diversity," "localism" and "the public interest" - abstract concepts all. Yet Andrew Meppen of the Writers Guild of America did a fine job of stating the clear dangers of media consolidation.
"With consolidation, censorship isn't what you're going to have to worry about, so much as absence of controversy," Meppen said. "If there's any form of censorship, it's going to be in not putting on anything that would harm the corporation. ...That's the kind of censorship you worry about. They're going to protect their own interests."
Sounds exactly like what we already have at the Tribune, the Hollinger-owned Sun-Times, the major broadcast TV networks and the increasingly corporate-owned radio stations.
Is it too boring a subject? Would viewers, listeners and readers tune out if the media gave any time to it? "Three-quarters of the American people do not know this issue is before the FCC," Copps said. "I think the American people, once they're reminded of this issue and that they own the airwaves, get it real quick."
- Ted Cox's column runs Tuesday and Thursday in Suburban Living, Friday in sports and Friday in Time out!
What you can do
The grassroots group Chicago Media Action advises concerned citizens to weigh in on media ownership regulations in the following ways:
- Lobby senators and U.S. representatives. The Federal Communications Commission reports to Congress and is charged with enforcing the media laws Congress adopts. Also lobby the FCC directly at www.fcc.gov by entering an Electronic Comment File Submission (ECFS) on Docket 02-277.
- Pass the word and urge others to act. This means talking to friends and colleagues, but also agitating local newspapers and TV and radio stations to stop stonewalling and cover the issue - before the June 2 date set for the FCC to vote.
- Stay in touch with media organizations and watchdog groups. Try the chicagomediaaction.org and chicagomediawatch.org Web sites.