Last week in Philadelphia, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the Federal Communications Commission back to Washington, D.C., with its tail between its legs after ruling that new federal regulations allowing large corporations like General Electric and Clear Channel to expand their stranglehold on the mass media were not in the public's interest, referring to some regulations as "irrational" and "absurd."
The FCC's quest for deregulation was led by President Bush appointee Michael Powell, FCC chairman and son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. At issue was the number of media outlets that a company may own in a single market. About FCC regulations designed to keep the airwaves-public property-in the hands of the public, the younger Powell once quipped, "There is something offensive to First Amendment values about that limitation."
After reviewing the FCC's recommendations, the court decided:
* to lower the percentage of the national population that a single media corporation would be permitted to reach via local TV stations to 39 percent rather than the suggested 45 percent.
* to reject the recommendation that media owners should be allowed to own newspapers, TV stations, a cable company and radio stations in one single market.
* to delay the implementation of a recommendation allowing TV stations and newspapers within a single market to be owned by a single company until the FCC answers questions about the subsequent regulation of those entities.
However, regarding regulations of radio airwaves, the court upheld the FCC's recommendation to allow the parent companies of radio stations, like Clear Channel, to continue to own hundreds of stations.
What does it all mean to San Diego, where approximately 20 interests-local, national and international-control the flow of information? CityBeat turned to Robert Horwitz, chair of the Communications Department at UCSD, for answers.
CityBeat: What are the implications of the decision?
Robert Horwitz: It said the explanations the FCC marshaled in order to justify its 3-2 decision weren't good enough and they need to go back to the drawing board. It forestalls the increasing concentration of mass media, but in some ways it may be a signal to the FCC that they basically just have to go back and develop a different set of explanations that would satisfy an appellate court. They may well do that assuming Bush is reelected and the same people are pretty much in control.
Is one part of last week's ruling more important than another?
From my end of things, the least important of these suspended rules is the national television ownership limit, the one that people keep harping on the most. I don't think it matters very much if national station owners can collect local stations reaching 35 or 45 percent of the population. The one that concerns me is the control of local markets because most people watch local TV news, as crappy as it is. If local news is already dominated by, say, the San Diego Union-Tribune, which can buy the ABC affiliate, then that really is a remarkable control of information. So it's the local stuff to me [that] seems much more important.
But don't most local media outlets get the majority of their news from a wire service or national network?
This is why things are so complicated, because you are fighting for something, the diversification of ownership, which-largely because you have an advertising-based system-already concentrates certain kinds of news and information in particular kinds of ways. In point of fact, when you look at the local television news channels, the first thing that they do is open up the U-T in the morning and they follow what the U-T has done. So does it really make a difference if the U-T owns the ABC affiliate? It might not, but the point is the potential for the ABC affiliate to have the ability to cover something else and not just follow the newspaper's lead.
So the regulations don't matter that much?
That's right. I think, realistically, the suspension of the FCC ownership guidelines of June 2003 probably won't affect us very much, but it's something that has to be fought for anyway. Part of the reason for that is the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave away the store, and once you have no ownership limits for things like radio, well, I don't know how many stations Clear Channel has here in San Diego.
It has 14.
Now that's an abomination.
What is the argument for deregulation?
The conservatives have said that the Internet-just like 9/11-changes everything because you can go to someone's web page, or a gazillion other URLs out there, and extract information and post your own. So there is a marketplace of ideas and the Internet guarantees it.
You mentioned the Telecommunications Act of 1996, what did it do?
The 1996 act basically got rid of the television duopoly rules that said a single entity could not own more than one television station in one market. The idea around them was that no one corporation should be able to control the news, information and access to the public arena.
Short of declaring Clear Channel a monopoly, can they put it back the way it was?
Even if Bush is defeated in a landslide and Congress goes back to the Democrats, it seems very, very unlikely that you could put the cat back in the bag-partly because the courts have upped the ante in the First Amendment analysis that makes it very difficult to claim that any one entity, even one as big as Clear Channel, is exercising undo influence.
So what's the solution?
I think it is different financing mechanisms for mass media. PBS is different because it is funded differently, sort of. It's not required to watch the demographics of the audience to see who is the most valuable for what kind of advertisers.
Will it get worse from here? Will we end up with media moguls saying, "We aren't going to do anything negative about Bush on my stations"?
I think that happens already. There were all kinds of reports that during the war, not that the war is over, but during the heavy part of the war that Clear Channel would not air programs or songs that were critical of the war. That whole hubbub about the Dixie Chicks was purported to be related to the fact that Clear Channel has a very conservative ownership. They are within their First Amendment rights to choose who they want to have on the air, but if our choice is diminished because they start to own more and more radio stations, then in fact they are able to channel what it is that people hear.
But don't we as the consumers have the power to change the channel and say we don't want our information from them?
That's a hard question. Is the choice of being able to turn off the station exercising a lot of power? Maybe indirectly. But changing the channel, if you are changing between Fox, MSNBC and Clear Channel, then who cares? How much power do you have if they are all owned by the same five or six mega-corporations?