When it rains...

Posted by Mitchell - May 2, 2003 (entry 32)

This week's Letters Page in the Chicago Reader includes this letter to columnist Michael Miner that I quote in full:

Dear Mr. Miner, You first announced on March 21 that a public forum would be held on new changes being made by the FCC that would, among other things, enable newspaper companies to own television and radio stations in the same local market. Then, on April 18 you bitched out the dailies for not covering the forum. "The working press stayed home," you say. But that was expected. My quesiton is, where were you?

The consequences of the FCC laxing its media ownership rules were debated at length but were never addressed in your column. You too stayed home, kept your job, and turned a blind eye to the dangerous relity of today's media conglomerates.

It's no wonder that the Tribune Company wants deregulation. The bubblegum/baseball/media corp. hid behind the Constitution to justify its support, writing in a March 9 editorial, "This newspaper's view is guided by a belief that government restrictions on newspaper and television ownership smack of an infringement on freedom of the press."

Give me a break! The Tribune Co. sees dollar signs, as does the rest of our country's already tiny handful of information providers.

Gee Eee, what's the problem with Clear Channel owning 1,400 radio stations? Gee Eee, what's wrong with obese media conglomerates getting even fatter? Our local news exists solely to make profits and to serve the interests of their stockholders. Flip on the TV and count the corporate sponsors during a 30-minute local news program. Think that's baseball you're watching? Nope, that's an ad for U.S. Cellular, Miller Lite, and Insurance One all in a five-second news clip.

Now, FCC chairman Michael Powell (son of Colin Powell, appointed by President Bush) plans to take the crap that is already clogging our airwaves and force-feed it to us through a single straw. But it is easy to see the consequences of lifting the FCC rules will go beyond annoying product placement and into the realms of media censorship and government propaganda.

These were some of the concerns expressed at the public forum. Wish you were there.

Melissa Gibbons
Pilsen

As though solidifying control of our airwaves to corporations isn't bad enough, plans are afoot to give them the Internet too.

However, there is (some) good news this morning. I've been informed that a resolution is coming up before the Chicago City Council against accelerated concentration of media ownership. Chicago readers: Contact your alderman and tell them to support this.

Update: Here's the full text of the resolution, followed by some talking points about why it's important:

A RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF DIVERSITY IN MEDIA

WHEREAS, freedom of the press and public access to diverse media are prerequisites for a functioning democracy; and

WHEREAS, the broadcast airwaves are owned commonly by the public, and should be managed to serve the public interest; and

WHEREAS, the public interest is best served by the availability of a broadly diverse range of viewpoints; and

WHEREAS, media diversity is seriously threatened by further consolidation of media ownership in an already highly concentrated market; and

WHEREAS, deregulation of radio ownership rules under the 1996 Telecommunications Act caused unprecedented consolidation, dramatically decreasing competition; and

WHEREAS, radio industry consolidation has also damaged local commitment and content diversity, in part by shifting control and resources away from local programmers and towards central managers, which had led to reductions in local news and public affairs programming, thousands of lost jobs, and reduced access to the airwaves for local musicians, community groups and public officials; and

WHEREAS, a 1998 Benton Foundation study sent a warning signal with its finding that in Chicago, 12 commercial television stations devoted no more than 1% of their total programming to local public affairs; and

WHEREAS, the Chicago City Council supports competition, local commitment and a broad diversity of voices and do not support media consolidation that would harm the public interest and decrease the commitment of media owners to the local community; and

WHEREAS, the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering an unprecedented rollback of media ownership regulations; and

WHEREAS, the elimination or weakening of these regulations would further reduce competition, local accountability, diversity of content and voices, and the amount and quality of news coverage in broadcast and print media across the country while providing windfall profits for a small handful of corporate media owners;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, THE MAYOR CONCURRING, THAT:

We recognize that as citizens in a democracy, we require public access to a diverse range of media voices and messages in order to participate fully in our community's shared social, cultural and political life. We stand for regulations that serve the public interest. Unchecked media consolidation benefits a small number of corporate interests at the expense of the public interest.

We urge the Federal Communications Commission to protect and preserve its ban on cross-ownership of print and electronic media and to strengthen existing media ownership regulations, including regulations that limit the number of stations one owner may hold. By so doing, the FCC will protect the public's right to diversity in media content, ownership and employment.

We further call upon the Congress to exercise its oversight in the area of federal communications policy through public hearings on media ownership issues; and to pursue legislation aimed at protecting our democratic media by prohibiting further media consolidation.

****

MEDIA OWNERSHIP CONCERNS

Radio Consolidation - The 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted the cap on radio ownership, resulting in Clear Channel radio alone growing from 43 stations in 1995 to over 1,200 today or 30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed. After 1996, a large number of independently owned radio stations across the country were purchased by 10 companies that now control two-thirds of all radio content (Report issued by the Future of Music Coalition.) There are some 1,300 fewer owners of commercial radio stations than 7 years ago.

Job Loss - Media consolidation leads to job loss - nearly 13,000 jobs have been lost in the commercial radio industry alone.

Decline in diversity of owners - Today 98% of Americans live in communities with only one local newspaper (Report by Center for Public Integrity) - in the past 25 years TV station owners have gone from 540 to 360 and newspaper owners from 860 to fewer than 300 (Consumer Federation of America). Less than 4% of the nation's TV and radio stations are owned by ethnic minorities (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)

Increase in ad rates (less competition) - Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act - ad rates have skyrocketed by a full 68 percentage points more than the overall rate of inflation (FCC study commissioned to analyze media concentration's effect on advertising prices.) In response to an attempt by the FCC to explain that this was due to economic growth rather than media concentration, Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted an analysis and found that during other periods of economic growth prior to deregulation, prices decreased.

Decline in local public affairs and news - Number of newsrooms nationwide has been reduced by 15 percent since 1977. (Consumer Federation of America)

There has been a steady decline in local public affairs programming. Five years ago (1998) a Benton Foundation study What's Local About Local Broadcasting? found that 12 commercial stations in Chicago devoted no more than 1% of their total programming to local public affairs. In Chicago, seven major companies predominantly control the broadcast television, radio and print media. Of the seven (General Electric, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, Tribune Co, Hollinger International, Clear Channel Communications) only the Chicago Tribune is local.

Decline in local civic and emergency communications From an editorial in the New York Times (Feb. 20, 2003): "Liberal Democrats are horrified by the legion of conservative talk show hosts who dominate the airwaves. But the problem stretches across party lines. National Journal reported last month that Representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, was finding it difficult to reach his constituents over the air since national radio companies moved into his district, reducing the number of local stations from five to one. Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, had a potential disaster in his district when a freight train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed, releasing a deadly cloud over the city of Minot. When the emergency alert system failed, the police called the town radio stations, six of which are owned by the corporate giant Clear Channel. According to news accounts, no one answered the phone at the stations for more than an hour and a half. Three hundred people were hospitalized, some partially blinded by the ammonia. Pets and livestock were killed."

Increase in industry power to influence legislation - Media giants helped bankroll the Telecommunications Act and were also pivotal in defeating the Campaign Reform Act of 2002 which would have required TV stations to offer political campaign ads at reduced rates. (Camille T. Taiara San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Center for Public Integrity found that the 50 largest media companies and the tradse associations that represent them spent $111.3 million lobbying Congress and the executive branch from 1996 to 2000. The industry donated more than $1 million each to Bush and Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign.

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