Media Deregulation Is Far From Good News
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Because Monday's vote by the FCC to further deregulate American media had long been considered a fait accompli, Chicken Little scenarios and legal positioning were well evolved before the commission's three Republicans trumped its two Democrats.

Despite assertions by Mel Karmazin of Viacom (CBS, Blockbuster, Paramount) and Rupert Murdoch of NewsCorp. (Fox, Fox News, TV Guide, New York Post) that they have no specific new acquisition targets in mind, and no newspapers in particular, you'll excuse anyone who declines to take either at his word. Karmazin and Murdoch were the two major personalities pushing to throw open the gates to another round of acquisition and expansion. Both require 24-hour monitoring and surveillance.

Despite the disingenuous if not wholly cynical blather of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, Monday's vote is antithetical to promoting diversity and will allow, if not guarantee, that Americans are served an ever-more-homogenized news and entertainment product by the same handful of gigantic entities that already control the majority of the most popular venues and channels.

If you doubt it, all you have to do is turn on your radio. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to free up telephone and radio service to a bold new world of competition and choice. What we got, basically was WorldCom, Qwest and Clear Channel, or, as they're better known, Fraud, Incompetence and Predatory Blandness Inc.

That system got gamed, and there's every reason to suspect the TV and newspaper will get gamed this time around by people - executives at Viacom, NewsCorp, GE and Gannett - far more focused and motivated than any FCC regulator.

Various consumer watchdog groups such as MoveOn and Common Cause are poised to take legal action to dilute if not repeal what the FCC has just done. You wish them luck. What do you figure are the Vegas odds on Common Cause's attorneys pile-driving the Viacom/Fox/GE/Gannett suits?

Wisconsin's U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, heir apparent to the Paul Wellstone populist mantle, has gotten essentially nowhere with his proposed legislation to reign in Clear Channel's control over the American music industry (it controls everything from record/artist promotion to airplay to concert tours to billboards).

In a statement after Monday's vote, Feingold said, "It is unfortunate that the FCC did not consider the lessons we have learned over the last seven years from the consolidation in the radio industry." Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) has repeatedly complimented himself on the FCC's exhaustive pursuit of openness and public comment. Unfortunately, the process Powell used to arrive at this decision bears more resemblance to Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous hypersecret, industry-only "energy commission" than to any kind of genuinely open public forum.

The Karmazins and Murdochs were all over Powell and the two other "yes" votes like pickpockets swarming a trio of chumpy, credulous tourists. Pro-deregulation media titans, not MoveOn or Common Cause, were granted closed-door meetings with Powell.

The watchdog group Center for Public Integrity reports that "FCC officials have taken 2,500 trips costing nearly $2.8 million over the last eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industry the agency regulates. That was in addition to about $2 million a year in official travel funded by taxpayers."

And we're not talking jaunts for town meetings in Des Moines. "FCC commissioners and staffers attended hundreds of conventions, conferences and other events in locations all over the world, including Paris, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro staying in such high-priced hotels as the Bellagio in Las Vegas." (In fairness, the single largest junketmeister was the National Association of Broadcasters, which was lobbying against more deregulation.)