Short Takes: June 6, 2003
Networks Were Silent On FCC Story
St Paul Pioneer Press

With the mainstream media finally reporting on - and therefore the public paying attention to - the FCC's latest deregulation giveaway, the fight to do something about media oligopolies is just now beginning.

Fundamentally, the problem with telling the FCC story is that the average person has a hard time relating to it. It is abstract and bureaucratic. There are no pictures. There is no "Laci hook." No corpse. No sex. No philandering spouse. Nothing resembling anything we watch for entertainment at the movies or on primetime TV. The supermarket tabloids wouldn't touch it if Whitney Houston, Demi Moore, Bill Clinton, Oprah and Brad Pitt keeled over dead tomorrow.

Moreover, the argument that this society's airwaves and pipelines of information are a unique resource and should be treated differently than other businesses sounds like dreamy-eyed hippie talk.

Those are some of the principal excuses the national news organizations have used to explain why they reported so little about the FCC vote prior to the 11th hour in late May and early June.

A Nexis news database search showed that as of May 20, less than two weeks prior to the vote, neither Viacom-owned CBS or GE-owned NBC had said anything in their respective evening newscasts about the rules changes, changes for which both companies had been vigorously and expensively lobbying Congress and the FCC. Disney-owned ABC did two pieces in mid-May.

With the vote nearing, "Nightline" did a full edition on the possible impact of the vote, although it is interesting to note that FCC chairman Michael Powell bailed on Ted Koppel at the last moment.

The paucity of coverage of this issue, something that will directly effect every American virtually every minute of their lives, illuminates what may be critics' primary concern, namely lack of diversity of information.

Powell and the FCC's pro-deregulation benefactors -Viacom, GE, Disney, NewsCorp, Gannett, etc. - have argued that further deregulation will guarantee more and more vibrant competitiveness and diversity in American media. In this context, "diversity" does not necessarily refer to racial and ethnic groups, although Powell, who is African-American, has from time to time played that card, suggesting that this expansion of a handful of media giants will allow the giants to program more channels for minorities.

Powell's critics have practically gagged on that one.

The Hmong Small Business Alliance has about as much chance of being represented on an expanded GE/NBC as I do of touring with 50 Cent and Jay-Z.

What is really meant by "diversity" in FCC-speak is a variety of voices supply a variety of opinions and information. (Monotonously similar entertainment programming is a separate but fundamentally similar issue.) "Diversity" of course is precisely what we don't get now. Essentially every news organization competes to report/sell the same "irresistible" story. Hence, wall-to-wall, 24/7 OJ/Di/Monica/Chandra/Laci. Stories viewers can "relate to." But next to nothing about something with the cultural and possible economic impact of the FCC deregulation vote. Powell and his two fellow pro-deregulation commissioners bought the mega-media view that the public airwaves are a commodity, not appreciably different than beer, shampoo and pickup trucks, and therefore entitled the same full, free-market pass to maximize profit.

But Monday's vote and the last-minute/post-facto publicity it got has given impetus to Sen. John McCain's Senate Commerce Committee, which might be able to stifle, if not roll back, what the FCC has done. McCain, usually a pro-deregulation guy, is not pleased with what has just gone down. But it is ranking Democrat Fritz Hollings of South Carolina who put it most bluntly, telling the Washington Post that Powell has been engaged in "spin and fraud" and that under him, the FCC has become "an instrument of corporate greed."