A loss for media independence

Powell: The FCC chairman's policies on media ownership hark back to the Reagan administration.

January 26, 2003|By Marvin Kalb | Marvin Kalb,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here, in Washington, there is another Powell who can make news. His name is Michael, he is the son of Colin and, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he is on the edge of rewriting the rules governing mass communications in America.

No one will be surprised if, in the next few months, he opens the door to a new era of deregulation spawning huge media conglomerates that care more about political and economic power than a free, diverse and robust press, more about profit than the public interest.

Yet, Powell is not making news. The reason may be the rush of other news, or it may be the bewildering complexity of the subject itself. For example, we are being told about the incredible advantages of broad- and multi-band (rather than cable) broadcasting, of interactive television and telephones, satellite and digital transmissions and, of course, the Internet.

But do we know whether the new rules, as Powell argues, really will encourage economic growth, increase diversity and, as they lift everything else, presumably improve journalism? Or will they trigger a renewed frenzy of buying and selling corporations, which in the long run has the effect of weakening democracy and journalism?

If this were the automobile business, that would be one thing; but this is a business like no other. It is the one that controls the political and cultural message of the country: the news people watch, read and hear; the programs they enjoy on radio and television; sports they cheer, debates they applaud, politics they support, elections, campaigns, video education. As such, it is an immensely rich and powerful business.

Powell heads a five-member FCC, including two other Republicans and two Democrats. The numbers tilt the FCC decidedly toward the White House view that what's good for George W. Bush is now good for the country. Michael J. Copps, one of the two FCC Democrats, raises an obvious question. "What if we make a mistake?" he asks. "How do you put the genie back in the bottle?" A collection of politicians, led by South Carolina's Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, academics and consumer advocates ask the same question. But, with Congress now solidly in Republican hands, Powell looks out over the political and economic landscape with increasing optimism.

Under his watch, a half-dozen ownership rules are certain to be changed or dropped in coming months. Gone will be rules that:

bar a newspaper from owning a TV station in the same community;

block a media conglomerate from owning two TV networks;

stop a network from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's homes;

restrict a broadcaster from owning two TV stations in the same market;

prohibit a corporation from acquiring more than eight radio stations in the same market;

prevent a network from owning more than 30 percent of the national market.

The point of those rules was to stop or limit media monopolization and, in this way, ensure a diversity of voices at the local and national levels. The point of deregulation is to open the marketplace to new economic opportunities and technologies.

Powell and the supporters of deregulation argue that there is no real choice. Revolutionary changes in technology and ownership are sweeping the industry, here and abroad, and the United States must keep pace and command the market, or lose the competitive edge altogether.

Powell advances his argument cautiously or bluntly, depending on his audience. "There must be industry restructuring," he wrote in The Financial Times of London, "to address over-capacity, hyper-competition, weak pricing power and falling revenues." He assured both sides of Congress there would be no radical changes and he'd be "guided exclusively by the public interest."

Few would disagree that some modest degree of change is probably inevitable, given the sweeping economic and technological advances; but there are huge problems in the monopolization of the media, especially in the pursuit of news. Powell describes and dismisses this view as "impassioned histrionics" and "melodramatic." But we know from experience the kind of damage his policies are likely to unleash.

The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, as a matter of political faith, began deregulation of many industries, including mass communication. Radio affiliates of ABC, CBS and NBC splintered away from the networks and dropped their allegiance to hard news. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 continued the move toward deregulation. Those changes were modest compared with what is nowenvisioned, but their impact was widespread.

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