Michael K. Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, proves in this editorial in the NY Times that he just doesn’t have a clue. He is arguing about broadcast competing with cable when it is the overall consolidation of the media into the hands of a few omnipowerful corporations, and the tangible results of previous consolidation (read radio), that citizens and now congress are upset about. Nice of him, too, to acknowledge that we should have a national debate on the matter – after the fact – when the lack of a debate prior to the rule changes June 2 is part of what people are upset about:
- As the debate about media ownership has moved to Congress during the last two months, the tone of the rhetoric has grown increasingly shrill. One member of Congress said the Federal Communications Commission’s June 2 decision to modernize media ownership rules would produce “an orgy of mergers and acquisitions,” while another said the new rules could create a new generation of Citizen Kanes.
A key portion of the F.C.C.’s decision would allow one company to own broadcast stations reaching up to 45 percent of the national market, an increase from the current cap of 35 percent. Last week the House approved a $37 billion measure to finance several federal agencies, which also included a provision to restore the 35 percent limit. Yet there is a distressing lack of consensus, and even some basic misunderstandings, over exactly what problem Congress is trying to solve.
There is no doubt that this debate about the role of the media in America is important. It involves not only the core values of the First Amendment, but also issues like how much we value diversity of viewpoints and to what extent the government should promote competition and encourage local control of television.
Whether changing the ownership cap will address these concerns is another question. If the problem is lack of diversity among the media, then the fact is that the United States has the most diverse media marketplace in the world. There are more media outlets, owners, variety and diversity now than at any point in our nation’s history. Moreover, our nation’s media landscape will not become significantly more concentrated as a result of changes to the F.C.C. rules.
Some say the problem is media concentration, and point out that only five companies control 80 percent of what we see and hear. In reality, those five companies own only 25 percent of more than 300 broadcast, satellite and cable channels, but because of their popularity, 80 percent of the viewing audience chooses to watch them. Popularity is not synonymous with monopoly. A competitive media marketplace must be our fundamental goal, but do we really want government to regulate what is popular?
Others claim that ownership limits are necessary because TV has too much sex or too much violence, is too bland or too provocative. Is television news coverage too liberal, as the National Rifle Association maintains, or too conservative, as critics of networks like Fox say?
….All of this demonstrates that media ownership is no easy issue. When striving to promote the public interest, we must also honor the values of the First Amendment. That’s why, following the 1996 mandate of Congress, the F.C.C. armed itself with the facts and spent an exhaustive amount of time and resources to strike this constitutionally important balance. Let’s have a national debate, but let’s keep it in focus.
The fact that so many different groups with so many different agendas doesn’t say that people don’t understand the issues, as Powell contends, it says the rule changes are a really bad idea for a lot of different reasons. Powell has a tin ear and has to go.