The “Liberal Media”?
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 And Corporate Control Of The Airwaves
By Todd Vachon
“You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.”
-Gil Scott Heron
Many people take serious offense when I say that television could quite honestly be the largest road block to real democracy ever invented. While the potential for it to be the greatest tool and asset simultaneously exists, it’s power is unfortunately controlled by corporate giants who use it largely for “bad”, not “good” ends.
Being among the few die hard purists that avoid corporate media like the plague, it’s easy to see the vast majority of Americans absorb it’s sleazy content daily (like an ex-smoker smelling tobacco on everyone else). For most people it’s either a necessity or simply the most convenient way to find out “what’s happening.” Trying to gather as many varied sources as possible from the internet, radio and television can make us more completely informed, but most people don’t have the time or frankly the interest to do this; just the political news junkie types who read it for pleasure as well as education.
I’m the guy that walks into the doctor’s office, sees Fox News on the idiot box and immediately locates the remote to change the channel to Animal Planet (one of 100+ stations owned by Discovery Communications, Inc). To the surprised, and sometimes angered onlookers I offer: “We can all learn how to behave a little bit better by watching these animals than those other sly foxes.”
But, sadly “we, the people” rely heavily, if not exclusively on the media in order to make informed decisions; both public and private. Unfortunately, the information we receive is always biased. While I realize that unbiased media is a virtual impossibility, a little slant wouldn’t seem so bad if there were some balance coming from other major stations. Such balance used to exist to a certain extent, but it certainly does not in today’s profit-minded media system. The so-called “liberal media” is owned by a handful of very wealthy conservatives whose sole interest is in maximizing profits, to hell with public service. There is a bit more diversity in radio, but it’s still largely controlled by the same folks who own the television stations, cable networks and newspapers.
This extreme consolidation of media ownership is a relatively recent phenomenon. The private control of more and more media outlets by fewer and fewer companies was rapidly facilitated by one act of congress in the winter of 1996. While Bill Clinton was running for re-election, O.J. Simpson was on trial and the Taliban was capturing Afghanistan, five major corporations were conspiring to buy up and control 75% of what you see, read and hear in the United States. Guess which one of these stories didn’t get covered by the corporately owned media? Clinton won re-election and the media skewered him. OJ was acquitted and he was flambéed as well. The Taliban got mixed reviews from pundits, but the results of The Telecommunications Act of 1996 got just as much coverage after it was passed as it did before it was passed….virtually none.
Wasn’t it big enough news that the FCC and congress undid media regulations that dated back to the birth of radio and television? Damn right it was! Just not the sort of thing that the winners of the spoils wanted their viewers/listeners/readers to know much about. This is yet another glaring example of how democracy under capitalism serves the highest bidder.
So, having been left out of the know and now suffering it’s consequences, let’s examine what the Telecomm Act of ’96 actually did for the “liberal media.”
The Telecommunications Act of 1996:
(Source: The Fallout of The Telecommunications Act of 1996: Unintended Consequences and Lessons Learned, The Common Cause Education Fund, 2005. www.commoncause.org)
• Lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, the homogenization of play lists, and less local news.
• Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, News Corp [owner of Fox], General Electric, owner of NBC and AOL, owner of Time Warner, now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.
• The Act deregulated cable rates. Between 1996 and 2003, those rates have skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 50 percent.
• The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.
• The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections.
• The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.
In a small “d” democratic society it is absolutely imperative that the voting public have access to pertinent information that will guide their decision-making processes on issues that will effect them, their families’, friends and communities’. The simple fact that the major media outlets chose not to cover this legislation that changed media ownership rules tells me that they are more than willing to put profits before public service. How many other bills in congress or local policies have we missed out on? With now fewer owners controlling more media, their interests have also been consolidated and our access to information that may be contrary to their profit interests will be even more difficult to find.
While some stations are actually exposed for reporting blatantly inaccurate information regularly, it is the more “trustworthy” stations that pick and chose which stories to cover or not cover that have the most dangerous outcome for democracy.
Now, being a book that advocates more, rather than less socialism, you may be wondering at this point how socialism could address this problem. Well, first of all, erase any image of the state run Chinese media or Orwell’s ministry of information (or Fox News Channel) or any other undemocratic propaganda machine. The solution lies in having access to more diversity, not less.
To better serve the public interest, a few simple steps can be taken: 1. re-instate regulations. Implement strong public interest rules that require stations to cover local issues, issues of public interest, local elections, etc… in order to maintain a broadcast license. 2. Create more high quality, publicly funded, local media that is not in the business of making profits, but rather interested in informing, educating and entertaining the public, period. Give the public some democratic control over content. 3. Guarantee equal media access to all candidates for office, including eligible minor party candidates. Eliminate for-profit campaign advertising and open the television/radio debates to minor parties as well.
Although not often perceived as such, the media operates like the 4th branch of the government. They are the liaison between the state and the public, the gateway of information. This makes the media the single most important issue in politics today because it sets the agenda and provides the voice to opinions on all other issues. While the internet is currently a valuable resource for diverse information, it is not readily accessible by all Americans; especially not those in the lower income brackets, the elderly and less tech-savvy. But even the internet is now under attack by corporations like Comcast who wish to privatize every aspect of the web as well (see www.savetheinternet.com).
In sum, greater social ownership and democratic control of the media can only serve to improve democracy and hence society at large.