Michael Powell And The FCC: Giving Away the Marketplace of Ideas
By Tom Shales
The Washington Post

Unless something dramatic and unexpected occurs to stop it, this is what will happen today in Washington: The Republican chairman of the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and his Republican majority will revise long-standing rules on media ownership in ways that will hugely benefit, among others, rich Republicans.

Revising and relaxing the rules that prohibit a single entity from controlling too large a percentage of American media will allow corporations that are already too big to become much, much bigger. Also much more powerful and much more oblivious to the common good.

The proposed changes are such a threat to First Amendment freedoms that even some Republicans on Capitol Hill have been brave enough to oppose them. And yet, a fat lot of good it does. FCC Chairman Michael Powell wants to plow ahead with his deregulation scheme no matter what. It appears he is trying to do more damage than any other chairman in FCC history.

Never mind that a diversity of voices -- voices with the ability to be heard -- is integral to the health and maintenance of a democracy. While Powell and his supporters claim that the existence of dozens, even hundreds, of channels on cable and satellite systems proves there's diversity unbound, Powell's critics note that the diversity is a mere illusion if only five fat companies own all those channels.

Maybe this isn't a "sexy" issue, and it's received only perfunctory coverage from the networks and stations affected -- because it isn't visual, or because reporters and producers know that corporate management would prefer no such stories appear. But unless the word gets around somehow, unless people wise up and rise up, they'll discover that America's "marketplace of ideas" is owned and controlled by only a handful of appallingly powerful and interdependent corporations.

America in the 21st century faces dozens of socioeconomic problems requiring prompt government attention, obviously -- but would anyone argue that expanding the power and profits of omnivorous conglomerates is among them? Maybe Powell would, because he has made relaxing the ownership restrictions an obsessive crusade, pushing the changes through with little debate, great haste and even considerable secrecy.

"I'm opposed to the changes," says Barry Diller, chairman of USA Interactive and nothing if not a media mogul himself, "but I'm much more upset that this has not produced enough conversation and dialogue. The way Michael Powell has gone about it is to hide the issue as much as possible, organizing it to avoid debate and hearings, and getting it done largely under the cover of night."

Diller calls the rule changes "dark and dispiriting -- on the merits for sure, but also on the method." He says he doesn't understand why Powell and his supporters won't stop for a moment -- even just a 30-day delay -- to give the public more input. "Why are they so afraid of a mere pause?" Diller asks. "It's not like there's a bridge on fire."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the public-interest Center for Digital Democracy, says Powell has declined even to debate Diller, among others. "He refused to conduct [adequate] public hearings, he refused to have 30- or 60-day debates on the rules, he has been unwilling to reach out to the public," Chester says. "If Saddam Hussein had stayed in business, Powell might have made a great minister of information."

Powell's motive in ramming these changes through can't have anything to do with "the public interest, convenience and necessity" that the FCC is mandated to safeguard, because it's all about corporate interest, convenience and (to stretch the term) necessity instead. Perhaps Powell, who is the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell and a communications lawyer, believes that by making this generous bequest to corporate America, he is enhancing his own political future.

He may have his eyes on a cabinet-level position if Bush gets a second term, and might even imagine himself being named attorney general.

Fortunately for the country but unfortunately for Powell, his stubbornness and arrogance have antagonized groups and individuals that might otherwise not have paid that much attention to the rules being changed. And the informal coalition opposing the changes is not -- unlike the FCC itself -- drawn along partisan political lines. Thus the conservative National Rifle Association is among the groups protesting the changes, and conservative columnist William Safire has called the rule changing a "power grab" by the rich and powerful. Safire also blasted the FCC for its refusal to hold ample public hearings on "the most controversial decision in its history."

In a May 22 column in the New York Times, Safire wrote, "The concentration of power -- political, corporate, media, cultural -- should be anathema to conservatives . . . Why do we have more channels but fewer real choices today? Because the ownership of our means of communication is shrinking. Moguls glory in amalgamation, but more individuals than they realize resent the loss of local control and community identity."

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the activist Media Access Project, says "hundreds of thousands of postcards" protesting the proposed changes have taken Powell and his two fellow Republicans on the commission by surprise.

"The Internet group 'moveon.org' got a much bigger response than they expected" when they exposed the issue on the Web, Schwartzman says. "They got 3,000 responses on the Bush tax cut, but they've received 180,000 and counting on media ownership. People may not understand the details -- things like 'lifting the cap' and 'the top 12 markets' and so on -- but they know this is bad. They know the idea of a few companies owning everything is a bad one.

"This is about democracy having as many ideas and opinions out there as possible. That's why it's so important, and people are starting to realize that."

Ted Turner, one of the most influential communications entrepreneurs in American history, has also come out against the Powell's precipitous plan. The new, relaxed rules would "stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete," Turner wrote in The Washington Post on Friday.

"If these rules had been in place in 1970, it would have been virtually impossible for me to start Turner Broadcasting or, 10 years later, to launch CNN."

Bob Edwards, anchor of NPR's "Morning Edition," talked about the myth of media diversity in a lecture last month at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky.

"It's kind of a cruel, ironic joke," Edwards said. "The rise of cable TV and the Internet were supposed to democratize the media and give us many voices and numerous points of view. Instead, market forces and deregulation have clobbered diversity. The networks and cable channels have the same owners -- Hollywood studios, mainly -- and the most popular Web sites for news are those of organizations firmly established before the Web was spun."

Edwards used the example of the Dixie Chicks to show how monolithic media can manipulate public opinion. During that not-so-long-ago pre-war era -- before America "liberated" Iraq -- one of the Chicks uttered the now infamous opinion that as a Texan she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as Bush. There followed a huge tsunami of anti-Chicks protest. Or did there? Edwards said the supposedly populist "backlash against the Chicks" was mainly manufactured by Clear Channel Radio, a powerful and Texas-based corporation that owns 1,250 radio stations throughout the country. Songs by the Dixie Chicks, meanwhile, quietly dropped out of the playlists of many Clear Channel's country stations. "Clear Channel loves George W. Bush," Edwards said. "Clear Channel would like the administration of George W. Bush to remove all remaining restrictions on the ownership of media properties. That is exactly what the Bush administration is considering."

If there is one public figure more than any other that symbolizes media greed and the lust for power, as well as profit, that figure is Rupert Murdoch, the megalomaniac Australian with an insatiable lust for broadcast and cable properties. Murdoch's support of the Bush administration has been rewarded over and over by non-regulating regulators and Republicans in Congress. Murdoch is poised to acquire controlling interest in DirecTV, the nation's largest satellite delivery system. This comes shortly after another company, EchoStar, was rebuffed by the Justice Department in its attempt to buy the same company. Murdoch's desire to acquire it was already well known.

Although it would be economically unwise, Murdoch could conceivably drop CNN, chief competitor to Murdoch's Fox News Channel, from the DirecTV bill of fare. However, we can all rest easy. Why? Because Murdoch says he won't do that. And surely it would be uncharitable to imagine that Murdoch's easy win on the DirecTV decision had anything to do with the conservative slant of Fox News or the fact that the channel was easily the loudest national media cheerleader on behalf of Bush's Iraq war.

Fittingly and shrewdly, a group opposing the changes in the ownership rules is using a picture of Murdoch as its symbol of power-mad gluttony in commercials designed to arouse public opinion. To support the changes, say the ads, is to give Murdoch and his empire even greater influence over American life.

Cross-ownership rules that prohibit one company from owning a TV station, radio station and a newspaper in the same market would also crumble and fall under the Powell initiative. This worries Chester, who says that while newspapers are now "the last bastion of serious journalism," making them part of the TV empire will subject them to the tyranny of ratings, lead to a "dumbing-down" of newspapers and result in news budgets being "slashed," because when corporations grow, the first thing they always do is look for ways to cut costs.

"History shows that when you borrow a lot of money to buy new properties," says Schwartzman, "you plow profits back into debt service and you cut costs. And viewers suffer."

NBC, owned by General Electric, has been permitted "temporarily" to operate three TV stations in the Los Angeles market, Schwartzman says. If Powell's rule changes go into effect, the arrangement is bound to become permanent, "and that will be the rule in the very largest markets across the country. The Tribune Company will own two stations in every market where it has a newspaper. So will Gannett."

Bigness leads to homogenization, sameness, conformity and mediocrity. And this will be some of the biggest bigness America has ever seen.

Schwartzman, for one, sees hope. Angry reaction on Capitol Hill to Powell's crusade has been "quite bipartisan," he says, and he thinks the White House may be getting "a little uneasy" about the sudden, if belated, public reaction. Such network news programs as "Nightline" and "NBC Nightly News" have even done stories on the proposals. By and large, though, the network reports have hugely underplayed the importance of the story -- and the tremendous bonanza awaiting the networks' corporate owners if Powell's public-be-damned philosophy is allowed to reign supreme.

In testimony supporting the rule changes at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Viacom President Mel Karmazin said more deregulation of the business was overdue. Viacom owns CBS, MTV, UPN, Paramount and a herd of other cash cows. Karmazin whined that under the present rules, broadcasters are "handcuffed in their attempts to compete for consumers."

Yesterday on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," Powell made a rare public appearance to defend the changes, saying they will be less drastic than has been speculated and necessary so that broadcasters can "remain economically viable in the advertising market."

Oh, they're really hurting. Diller scoffs. "Anybody who thinks they're in trouble hasn't read the profit statements of those companies," he says. "The only way you can lose money in broadcasting is if somebody steals it from you." Michael Powell and the FCC are riding to the rescue of huge media conglomerates that need rescuing about as much as Spider-Man, Batman and the Terminator do. Unfortunately, you and I and the freedom of speech are the ones getting trampled in the stampede.

Staff writer John Maynard contributed research for this column.