The Problem of Media Consolidation
The line between news and entertainment has become increasingly blurred in our modern society. News media should provide all the information available to inform the public and serve the public interest. Since 1983, the number of companies that own most of the media in the United States, which includes newspapers, magazines, telephone services, internet access, TV and radio stations, movie studios and music companies, had dropped from over fifty companies to six in 2004 (fair.org). This is due largely to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eased ownership regulations that had been in place since 1934. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations make it extremely difficult for smaller, independent stations to get on air, creating media programming that is dictated by those with the most money and power. Although corporations argue that restrictions on media ownership hurt the free market and infringe on their rights to do business, the facts actually show that media consolidation is harming our democracy through the guise of deregulation, damaging quality media content through lack of diversity, undermines localism, our rights to a free press, and weakens journalism; therefore the only solution is to implement stricter regulations on media ownership, thus returning public airwaves to the citizens.
One of the things that make a democracy free is a well-informed public. Citizens need access to information about all sides of an issue or all the facts about candidates in an election. Since the media broadcasts on publicly owned airwaves free of charge, it is their responsibility to provide citizens with this information and serve the public interest. The facts show that this has not been the case with either entertainment based programming or with journalism. The public interest has not been served by media consolidation. The only thing being served by the deregulation of media is the profit margins of these corporations. This means we have lost a valuable asset in our democracy. Supporters of deregulation often state that it is an essential part of private enterprise, as well as a constitutionally guaranteed liberty (McChesney 7). Many corporations argue that they are entitled to the same constitutional freedoms as an individual, completely free from government interference or regulation.
On the surface, deregulation of media sounds like a great idea. According to McChesney, the term “deregulation” implies the people will have less rules and therefore more freedom (“Welcome to Havana” 23). Actually, it is pointed out in the film Orwell Rolls in His Grave, that deregulation is a misleading, if not Orwellian use of language. Americans like having less rules and “deregulation” of media sounds on the surface like it will create more diversity and less government interference in the media. McChesney stated that radio broadcasting is a classic example of the deregulation put into practice by the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“Welcome to Havana” 23). Deregulation had been occurring slowly for two decades prior to 1996, with the FCC gradually lifting local market ownership restrictions for radio stations (Sterling 1382). According to Sterling, in 1992, the FCC lifted the long time restriction that prevented a company from owning more than one station on AM and FM frequencies in the same local area (1382). In the transcript to Rich Media, Poor Democracy, McChesney pointed out that in terms of media ownership; deregulation did not eliminate the rules but simply put new rules in place that favored large corporations at the cost of sacrificing public interest (8).
When President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law that
February, the biggest impact was on the radio industry. Sterling pointed out that the law immediately dropped the limit on the number of radio stations that could be owned nationwide, doubled the amount of stations that could be owned in a single local market and eliminated competitive applications at license renewal time (1383). According to the documentary Rich Media, Poor Democracy, before 1996, companies were only permitted to own 28-40 stations nationally and no more than four in a local market. That cap was eliminated in 1996, allowing unlimited ownership nationally and eight in a single market (“Rich Media, Poor Democracy” 7).
"There's a handful of giants now that own most of the radio stations in this country. As a result, what's happened is that radio has gone from being our most democratic medium, our most decentralized, our most creative medium, to being our most regimented, standardized, least interesting medium in the country-hyper-commercialized," (McChesney 8)
Many policy makers hailed the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, stating that it would create positive effects in the industry, including eliminating outdated rules, new innovation and technology. They also argued that a more competitive market would be a result of deregulation, benefitting the public with greater diversity (Heins and Cooper 2). The reality is much different because another effect of the law, according to Sterling, was that it allowed owners to operate multiple stations with the same personnel, programming and management, creating, in essence, an automated local radio station, which required a very minimal staff (1383). Heins and Cooper pointed out that this has had the effect of stripping many local communities of a vital civic resource (2). In fact, Heins and Cooper concluded that media consolidation undermines diversity and localism, as well as reducing local content (3).
By creating automated stations, a program produced in Chicago can be heard in dozens of cities nationwide and by inserting pre-recorded station call letters, make it sound local. This is a problem for anyone who enjoys the sense of local connection that one gets from hearing a local DJ whenever they turn on the radio. According to a recent article in Spin magazine, Clear Channel, which owns over 1,200 radio stations worldwide (fair.org), laid off nearly two hundred local DJ's across the country, allowing the stations to cut costs and broadcast the same programming in multiple markets (spin.com). Cumulus Media followed suit, firing at least 27 people from two Los Angeles radio stations that it had recently acquired. Among those who became jobless was Jim Ladd, from Classic Rock, KLOS, who was known as the last commercial Free-form DJ in the country as well as the man that inspired the Tom Petty song, "The Last DJ" (Hogan). This clearly shows that corporate media owners are more interested in profit than promoting a sense of localism and connection to the community.
"We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers' products," said Lowry Mays, former CEO of Clear Channel Communications (“Freepress” 2). "Radio has been destroyed. A medium which is arguably the least expensive and most accessible of our major media, that is ideally suited to localism, has been converted into a Wal-Mart like profit machine for a handful of massive chains," Robert McChesney (“Welcome to Havana” 23).
The airwaves used by all media companies are actually owned by the American public. By law, media companies are required to serve the public interest in exchange for being allowed to use the airwaves free of charge (“Freepress” 10). In a study of radio format diversity, Polinsky noted that the FCC gages public interest in the variety of radio formats in a given market (122). Ownership concentration, it is argued, will achieve this by eliminating the same formats in a market because since owners of multiple stations want to gain larger audiences with different formats instead of competing with their own stations by broadcasting the same format (Polinsky 141). Another study by Todd Wirth concluded, "The Telecommunications Act of 1996 should be viewed as legislation that negatively impacted the radio listener” (44). Radio listeners prefer having several stations to choose from, including those with similar formats and prefer a depth of programming instead of endlessly changing formats (45). Again, we see that corporate consolidation of media is actually hurting our media instead of serving the public.
A logical assumption would be that public opinion and pressure would keep media consolidation in check and create more diversity and depth in programming. According to McChesney, this has not been the case and that the media system has been designed to maximize profit for these huge companies (“Welcome to Havana” 21). Another problem is that public policy is being influenced by a powerful media lobby, The National Association of Broadcasters, and since these broadcasters control the media, little or no coverage is given to these changes in media rules that affect the public (“Orwell”). Also, the media lobby controls which politicians get air time as well as donating huge sums of money to both political parties, giving these companies an extraordinary amount of influence in shaping public media policy (“Creating Independent News Media” 23). According to McChesney, it would not be profitable for media companies to report on or encourage public debate on media ownership rules (“Welcome to Havana” 22).
The problem goes far beyond radio. Media companies own multiple divisions of media, TV stations, magazines, newspapers and music companies, many of which are in the same local market, all of which are geared to maximize profits (“Rich Media, Poor Democracy” 5). These companies freely employ strategies such as cross promotion to promote its other media products. Another strategy is cross-production, where a company can turn a successful movie into a TV show, a cable series, a book, a soundtrack and get all of the profits from those ventures (“Rich Media, Poor Democracy” 5). Again, the argument could be made that these companies are simply practicing free enterprise. While this is, of course, true, what is really happening with all of the cross-promotion, cross production and product placement is that what is presented to the public as “news” is simply just an elaborate commercial. Most corporate produced news either gives news coverage to its own subsidiaries or are extended Public Relations campaigns intended to maintain the status quo and gloss over corporate misconduct. This has the effect of most news simply ignoring truly important social or global issues. McChesney noted that many have identified media democracy and citizen control of the media as a major political issue of this century (“Creating Independent News Media” 23).
Media companies have damaged journalism by making their news divisions be as profitable as their music and movie divisions (“Rich Media, Poor Democracy” 10). The result is that controversial issues are ignored to keep advertisers happy, large segments of the population are marginalized or misrepresented, local political affairs are ignored and focus has shifted from hard news to "infotainment" (“Freepress” 4). Stories are focused on celebrity gossip, and titillating, sensational stories are given the most attention (“Rich Media, Poor Democracy” 12). This has made American journalism much weaker. While there have been charges of a liberal bias in the media, what corporate media news has actually become is centrist, pro-war, pro-establishment and pro-big business (13). Hard hitting journalism, which used to ask the tough questions, has practically become a thing of the past in our country. We used to have journalists who would expose government or corporate mischief and bring it light for the public. Now, we have journalists who are mainly interested in bringing us the newest interview with Kim Kardashian or report on the latest fashions of the Royal Family.
In conclusion, media conglomeration is a serious threat to a healthy democracy. The fact that 90% of all media in the United States is controlled by less than a dozen companies means that these companies control the information received by most Americans. This allows these companies to shape the realities and perceptions of the American public, which threatens the free exchange of information needed for a well-informed public. The ultimate solution to this would be the complete repeal of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and put stricter controls on media, as well as ease rules which make it more difficult for independent, non-commercial outlets to get on air. This would help return the public airwaves to the citizens. While that is the best goal, in the meantime, individuals can seek out and support the few local, independent stations that are left and help keep them on air.
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