Steve Macek and I co-wrote the following op-ed which we submitted to the Chicago Tribune in response to their editorial.
"Big Media: The Public is Right to Be Concerned"
by Steve Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk
Two months ago the Federal Communication Commission adopted sweeping changes to its rules governing media ownership. The new rules opened the door for a few huge conglomerates to dramatically expand their share of the nation's print and broadcast media. In the process, they sparked an outpouring of public protest and a debate in Washington that refuses to die down.
Defenders of the FCC's deregulation efforts, such as the authors of a recent Tribune editorial (Aug. 6, "Big Media Confusion Reigns"), say the Big Media "isn't really all that big," so there's no harm in letting giant companies like Disney or Viacom grow even bigger. Besides, they say, some 300 different cable and broadcast channels provide more than enough options for those who don't like what the networks have to offer.
But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Some 80% of the 91 most widely distributed cable networks are owned by only six companies, five of which also own major broadcast networks. The number of TV station owners nationwide has dwindled from 540 to just 360 in the past 25 years. And the same 5 or 6 conglomerates who control the majority of the networks and the lion's share of the TV stations are now producing a growing share of the programming that gets aired in prime time. Not big? In most respects, Big Media have never been bigger.
Contrary to what FCC chair Michael Powell and the Tribune's editorial writers would have us believe, ownership matters. If the FCC's rule changes were implemented, a single corporation would be allowed to own two TV stations, eight radio stations and the dominant newspaper in a city the size of New York or Chicago. And since many radio stations and an increasing number of TV stations no longer maintain their own news operations, that means just one company--indeed, one staff--could end up providing the majority of local news for a city of millions. Scary, huh?
It gets scarier; media ownership could literally be a matter of life and death. No example is as stark as the North Dakota town of Minot. In January 2003 Minot had a late-night chemical train leak which created an immediate hazard to the town. When police tried to broadcast an alert over the city's six radio stations, they found the emergency broadcast system down. It turns out all of the stations were owned by Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio chain, and managed out of the same office. It took 90 minutes for someone to arrive at the Clear Channel office and relay the message to the public. The delay forced some 300 people to be hospitalized; one person even died. True, there's no guarantee that people could have been alerted in time if all six of those radio stations had different owners, but it illustrates the haunting prospects of a bloated and irresponsible media.
But citizens across the political spectrum have raised opposition against media deregulation. Congress has been inundated with more than 2 million postcards and petitions demanding a rollback of the FCC's rules changes. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution, 50-0, encouraging media diversity. And our political representatives in Washington are paying attention: On July 23, the House of Representatives voted 400 to 21 to prevent the FCC from lifting the cap on the TV audience a single company could reach. Meanwhile, the Senate is poised to reinstate the ban on "cross-ownership" of a TV station and a newspaper in the same market. What's more, a seldom-used "resolution of disapproval" could reverse this deregulation entirely.
The nation's leading media conglomerates are worried and with good reason. The American people are finally starting to fight back against the enormous power of the Big Media. It's about time.
Steve Macek is an Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at North Central College in Naperville and a member of Chicago Media Action. Mitchell Szczepanczyk is a computer professional and president of the activist organization Chicago Media Action.
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