Viacom, Disney, News Corp. Oh My!

April 20, 2009

“The gathering of more and more outlets under one owner clearly can be an impediment to a free and independent press.”
 Walter Cronkite

The only profession explicitly protected in the Bill of Rights is the press. The reason is fundamental: In a healthy democracy, those who disseminate information must not be fettered in their role of holding government accountable. The media outlets cannot play its role effectively unless it is independent both from government influence and from one another. Real objectivity may always be elusive, but a variety of information sources available and accessible to the public increase the likelihood that the most necessary information is in the dialogue. Conversely, there is real danger when there are limited sources with limited perspectives charged with informing us.

Today the press has become increasingly corporate and consolidated. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created by Congress to regulate use of the radio and television spectrum, interstate communications (telephone and cable), and international communications that begin or end in the United States. The radio and television spectrum is a publicly held resource that the FCC allows broadcasters to use as long as the broadcasters serve the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” The media is charged with serving the public good, and is permitted to make money while doing so.

The concentrated media ownership system has a negative impact on the quality of the news and information we receive about our local communities, the nation, and the world. Fewer press outlets means fewer reporters investigating and writing about public matters. Fewer investigations mean more stories, wrongdoings, and significant facts go unnoticed and unchallenged. Fewer reporters conducting these investigations means a more homogenous perspective on our news and an increased likelihood that important information will be missed from a sheer lack of manpower.

In recent years, the pace of media merger has increased dramatically. The 1996 Telecommunications Act began a surge of radio consolidations; drowning out local radio voices. These voices turned out to be essential in disseminating information during crises like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While mass media outlets were reporting on the general devastation from a distance, local and pirate outlets were helping residents get information about shelter, food, and rescue.

In 2006, the Bush administration FCC began a series of public hearings on media ownership. Although evidence and public opinion was stacked against them; two reports showed that media mergers led to decreased local news reporting (these reports were subsequently destroyed by the FCC), the vast majority of public comments at the hearings and in public record were opposed to further media consolidation, and a bipartisan group of 25 US Senators asked the FCC to spend more time on the issue before moving forward; the FCC ignored the public and Congress and in December 2007 voted 3 to 2 along party lines to allow greater consolidation.

The FCC removed the ban on newspapers and TV stations being owned by the same company in a particular market, allowing them to merge in the top 20 media markets in America. About half of all minority-owned TV stations in America fit this, making them targets for buyout by big media companies. Women own only 6 percent of TV and radio stations in America, although they represent 51 percent of the population. People of color own only 3 percent of TV stations and less than 8 percent of radio stations, although they are a majority of this country. The already low rate of media ownership by women and minorities means that issues of particular concern to these communities may be inaccurately or incompletely portrayed, or completely ignored.

A democratic media that serves the public interest is made up of varied voices that represent our diverse population. Please contact your local representatives if you are concerned about the diminishing number of voices. Support local and independent media outlets!