House Republicans did something highly unusual last week -- they voted against a position held by the Bush administration.
By a vote of 400 to 21, the House passed a bill that would effectively strike down the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision allowing media companies to expand their reach. It was a slap in the face to FCC Chairman Michael Powell and to news organizations that had spent millions of dollars lobbying on the issue. As B. Robert Okun of NBC told The Washington Post, "The backdoor efforts . . . to cut off funds to the FCC needed to implement these rules is very disappointing to us."
No doubt. In the months leading up to the FCC's 3-2 party-line vote on June 2, the leaders of several major news companies -- including News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, Viacom's Mel Karmazin and NBC's Robert Wright -- met with commissioners and their aides. Washington superlobbyists such as Richard Wiley, a former FCC chairman himself, also tried to sway the panel's vote.
And when the June decision was announced, many networks and newspaper owners wasted little time praising it. As Tara Connell of Gannett, which owns about 100 newspapers and 22 television stations, said, "Gannett is always in the market for good properties, and we will continue to look at things that come our way."
The FCC's decision -- which Powell said at the time would enact "modest, albeit very significant, changes" -- allows media companies to own a newspaper and television and radio stations in the same city. It also gives networks the right to buy stations that reach 45 percent of the country, up from 35 percent, an increase that Powell has dismissed as "a triviality." (Loopholes in the decision could increase coverage up to 90 percent.) While proponents said the decision reflects a changing media marketplace (the explosion of cable and the Internet makes it impossible for one company to control a majority of information, they say), critics insisted that no less than the future of the country is at stake. Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced legislation to reverse the FCC's decision, told me, "Clearly, what has been going on for a number of years now is that fewer and fewer media conglomerates are controlling more and more of what we see, hear and read. . . . The end result of it is that millions of Americans are not hearing alternative points of view other than the corporate big-money line, and I think that is dangerous to our democracy."
Obviously other lawmakers felt the same way. The bill, part of an appropriations measure, stands a good chance of passage in the Senate, where Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has introduced legislation to keep the 35 percent media ownership cap. On June 19, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the ownership cap, along with an amendment that would stop the cross-ownership of newspapers and television in the same market. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt says the speed with which the Commerce Committee acted was "unprecedented."
Like the House vote, the FCC debate has created unusual allies across the ideological spectrum. Conservative columnist William Safire of The New York Times called the FCC decision a "surrender to media giantism." The National Rifle Association and the Family Research Council also opposed the FCC vote. So did liberal groups, such as the National Organization for Women, which says the decision could "shut out" women and minorities from important media decisions. The FCC, however, hardly listened to any opposition, including the 750,000 comments urging it not to change the rules. While top broadcasting representatives met with FCC officials more than 70 times as the decision was being weighed, the Consumers Union and the Media Access Project met with the FCC just five times, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Media companies also spent millions of dollars lobbying from 1999 to 2002 (although not all of it was to influence the FCC vote). Among the big spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, were Disney ($16 million), News Corp. (about $10 million) and Viacom ($4 million).
As Hundt told me, "When you welcome consolidation in the media, you are opening Pandora's box. You do not really know what you're going to get." But there are several likely results. The cross-ownership rule, allowing a single company to own broadcast stations and a newspaper in the same market, will literally reduce the number of voices heard in the media -- which is why interest groups on both sides of the aisle are so concerned about the decision. Cable networks are already increasingly dominated by conservatives such as Bill O'Reilly on FOX and former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) on MSNBC; the airwaves are filled with Rush Limbaugh and Ollie North types. This trend is only likely to continue in a Murdoch-dominated media world.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the FCC's decision is that it "doesn't make any sense in terms of a reflection of a real world," as Hundt put it. For all the talk about cable and the Internet providing venues for different points of view, these outlets mostly rehash what's been in the morning paper or newscast. "And yet," Hundt says, "the FCC is acting like they are independent sources of news."
Anyone worried about the dangers of media consolidation need look no further than radio. Before the FCC relaxed radio-ownership rules in 1996, the number of stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc. was about 40; today it's about 1,200. Besides limiting the viewpoints listeners hear, such consolidation can also have potentially dangerous consequences. In a now-infamous story, a train carrying toxic materials derailed in Minot, N.D. Six of the seven radio stations there are owned by Clear Channel, but listeners could not find out information about the accident because police were unable to reach the radio's one employee in the area.
Things aren't likely to be much better in television news. Even before the FCC's decision, though, there were troubling signs that fewer outlets are controlling the information Americans receive. As Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) pointed out at the committee hearing, 25 television companies own 44 percent of stations -- up from 24 percent in 1995. And a report from the Consumer Federation of America and the Consumers Union found disturbing trends where one concern controls both a newspaper and television station in the same city. In Tampa, Fla., a Tampa Tribune writer was warned by editors not to criticize WFLA-TV, as the station and newspaper opened a joint operations center (both are owned by Media General Inc.). Another report, produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, found that news quality suffers when stations are run by a small group of big corporate owners.
But most Americans were unaware that the FCC was even making a decision, never mind its consequences. A February poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates showed that 72 percent of Americans knew "nothing at all about it." That's because most newspapers and networks didn't cover it extensively. When they did, there was little or no mention of how much the media companies stand to gain. Networks owning more stations will mean increased profit margins, because while networks often see profits of about less than 5 percent, local stations can have profits of 60 percent. Cross-ownership not only means cross-promotion, where a television station can hype a newspaper owned by the same company, or vice versa; it also means news organizations can share resources and cut down on costs. All of which results in a fatter bottom line for owners such as Murdoch, and fewer voices debating the issues of the day.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.