Opinion: Media Mergers Threaten Community News

Consolidation of media ownership means less diversity of opinion.

by / October 24, 2008
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The U.S. federal government's media ownership policies have tremendous impact on the community media that has traditionally played an important role in fostering community awareness and involvement.

The past 20 years have seen an unprecedented number of media mergers among TV, radio, film, publishing and online holdings. An oligopoly has emerged in which six massive corporations control enormous numbers of media outlets. In 2006, combined revenues from these companies were greater than many countries' economies - even individually, the economic might is daunting. These companies include:

Viacom ($11.5 billion revenue) owns Atom Entertainment, BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Home Entertainment, publishing company Famous Music, music game developer Harmonix, and 18 joint ventures with Indian media company Global Broadcast News.

CBS Corp. ($14.3 billion revenue) owns the CBS Television Distribution Group, CBS Television Network, Showtime, Simon & Schuster book publishers, 27 TV stations, CBS Radio Inc. and its 140 stations across the country, and jointly owns The CW television network with Time Warner.

News Corp. ($25.3 billion revenue) controls the Fox Broadcasting Co., including TV and cable networks, such as Fox, Fox Business Channel, National Geographic and FX; 35 TV stations; print publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, TV Guide and the magazines Barron's and SmartMoney; HarperCollins book publishing; film production companies Blue Sky Studios, Fox Searchlight Pictures and 20th Century Fox; and other Web holdings; and nonmedia holdings, including the National Rugby League.

Walt Disney Co. ($34.3 billion revenue) owns TV stations ABC, A&E, ESPN, the Disney Channel, Lifetime, SOAPnet; 227 radio stations; multiple music and book publishing companies; media production companies Miramax, Touchstone, Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios; the cellular service Disney Mobile; and numerous theme parks.

Time Warner ($44.2 billion revenue) owns AOL, Cartoon Network, Cinemax, CNN, The CW (a joint venture with CBS), HBO, MapQuest, Moviefone, Netscape, TBS, TNT, Warner Bros. Pictures, Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema, and more than 150 magazines, including Time, Cooking Light, Marie Claire and People. Time Warner Cable also controls roughly 20 percent of all cable broadband subscribers and increased its subscriber base by 3.5 million, to roughly 15 million total, with its acquisition of Adelphia with Comcast.

General Electric ($164.3 billion revenue) has media-related holdings including Bravo and the Sci Fi channels, Focus Features, MSNBC, TV networks NBC and Telemundo, Universal Pictures, and 26 additional U.S. TV stations.

In opposition to these massive media conglomerates is a growing coalition of civil rights, public interest, consumer and local media organizations. According to Ben Scott, policy director of media reform organization Free Press, media conglomeration isn't a left-right political issue. "It unites a wide variety of organizations concerned about the impact of concentrated media on the diversity of opinion a democracy requires," he said. In addition to the usual suspects expected to join a fight against Big Media (e.g., Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Free Press, Independent Press Association, National Federation of Community Broadcasters), other nontraditional allies are emerging: the American Federation of Musicians, the National Council of Churches, RainbowPUSH and the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

They've all joined together for the Stop Big Media campaign The only requirement to joining the campaign is agreement with the coalition's principles. The campaign's core element is a belief that "a free and vibrant media full of diverse, local and competing voices is the lifeblood of America's democracy." The campaign's straightforward goal is to "ensure that our media system is, in the words of the Supreme Court, 'an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will prevail.'" To that end, Stop Big Media focuses on advocacy efforts aimed at the FCC and Congress.

At its heart, Stop Big Media focuses attention on the stark outcomes of media conglomeration. As a

case in point, as mergers and acquisitions have run rampant throughout the industry, minority ownership of media has shrunk - perhaps a reason why many civil rights organizations have joined the coalition. Inez González, vice president of media policy for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, put the current situation bluntly: "There has been no progress on the diversity issue in media ownership ... [diversity] doesn't seem to have been a priority for this administration or the current FCC chair. ... It was only until Free Press released their studies that we confirmed what we all knew: that the numbers are just unacceptable."

While racial and ethnic minorities constitute 34 percent of the U.S. population, they own only 7.7 percent of full-power radio stations and 3.2 percent of TV stations. "Women are similarly underrepresented in the media ownership landscape," said Beth McConnell, executive director of the Media and Democracy Coalition. "When diverse communities are shut out of media ownership, their voices and points of view - as well as issues that matter to their communities - are poorly reflected or not reflected at all."

González said, "For Latinos there is a great urgency to deal with media consolidation because the issue has now become very personal. Hate speech in media has always existed, but it has increased to a scary degree, and it's being propagated by owners that are not interested in serving the public interest."

"Media consolidation limits the number of voices heard in the media, affecting both the political left and right," McConnell wrote. "The more diversity of ownership, the more diversity of viewpoints. That's why organizations and policymakers from both ends of the political spectrum have spoken out against weakening media ownership rules."

As González makes clear, civil rights groups are fighting against business interests that have deep pockets and strong lobbying arms. "The most prominent opponents of the campaign are the broadcasters and newspaper companies that desire to combine in local markets," Scott said. "These companies and their trade associations spend millions lobbying in Washington to scrap public interest limits on media ownership." And these millions of dollars have had an effect.

On Nov. 13, 2007, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wrote an op-ed in The New York Times claiming a "relatively minor loosening of the ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in markets where there are many voices" was vital "to improve the health of the newspaper industry." According to Martin, this allowance for further creation of conglomerates "would help strike a balance between ensuring the quality of local news while guarding against too much concentration." McConnell has a very different opinion on this, pointing out that Martin and others "argue media mergers, particularly among newspapers and broadcast television stations, are needed to boost their bottom line; but no credible evidence exists that media mergers create healthier news outlets that produce better reporting or programming."

In response to Martin's op-ed, Free Press, the organization coordinating the Stop Big Media campaign, released an 18-page report discussing 10 facts that contradict Martin's public statements. The report concludes:

  • Martin's "modest" proposal is corporate welfare for Big Media. Martin's plan would unleash a buying spree in the top 20 markets, making it easier for companies like Belo, News Corp. and Tribune Co. to push out independent, local owners.
  • Loopholes open the door to cross-ownership in any market. Under Martin's loose standards, cross-ownership waivers could be approved in hundreds of smaller cities and towns.
  • Loopholes allow newspapers to own TV stations of any size. The same technicalities could permit top-rated stations in any market to combine with major newspapers.
  • FCC history shows weak standards won't protect the public. The current rules forbid cross-ownership, but the FCC hasn't denied a temporary waiver request in years.

  • Cross-ownership doesn't create more local news. The latest studies - using the FCC's data - show markets with cross-ownership produce less local news, as one dominant company crowds out the competition.
  • Cross-ownership won't solve newspaper's financial woes. Claims that the newspaper industry is about to "wither and die" are greatly exaggerated, and no evidence shows that cross-ownership would make things better.
  • The Internet is an opportunity, not a death sentence. Mergers and consolidation aren't the answer to traditional media's financial problems.
  • Martin's plan would harm minority media owners. Nearly half of the nation's minority-owned TV stations are lower-rated outlets in the top 20 markets, making them a target for Big Media takeovers.
  • A broken, corrupt process creates bad policies. The FCC's lack of transparency, flawed research and secret timetable have tossed aside basic fairness and accountability in the rush to change media ownership rules.
  • The public doesn't want more media consolidation. Martin's actions ignore the millions of Americans - and 99 percent of the comments in the FCC docket - opposing a few media giants swallowing up more local media.

However, on Dec. 18, 2007, the FCC passed rules to allow further media conglomeration, disregarding most of the hundreds of thousands of comments filed by the public in opposition to allowing further media mergers. This decision meant the Stop Big Media Coalition had to go directly to Congress to fix the problem. In anticipation of the FCC ruling, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., introduced the bipartisan Media Ownership Act of 2007 (S. 2332), which would mandate public comment on, and an unbiased analysis of, new FCC rules and create an independent task force to investigate the stunning lack of minority media ownership.

The Senate passed S.J.RES.28, a joint resolution with similar impact to S. 2332, by a near-unanimous voice vote on May 15, 2008. For the Senate joint resolution to go into effect, the House of Representatives must pass a similar resolution. The Stop Big Media Campaign is now focusing its efforts there - working to get 100 co-sponsors for the House resolution over the summer - and expects a vote this fall.

This isn't just an issue for major metropolitan areas. For local municipalities and constituencies, the on-the-ground media ownership rules ultimately boil down to the issues of the diversity of opinions expressed and the representation of topical issues in the media. "Concentrated media freed of ownership limits create unprecedented control over the local news media by one company," Scott said. "That kind of power over public information without accountability or competitive forces is a danger to any local government official concerned with robust public information."

"Local artists cannot be found on most radio dials, as corporate station owners, like Clear Channel, prefer national playlists that eliminate the need for local DJs," McConnell said. "Similarly as large, out-of-state corporations look to increase profits in newsrooms, they slash staff and force reporters to do more with less. That means less investigative journalism, less watchdogging of local government and [it will be] easier to produce stories about fires, crimes and weather." For local communities, a lack of local ownership "affects the quality and availability of local news, art and culture."

Scott said, "The coalition aims to stop consolidation and pursue policies that provide opportunities for minorities and women to gain access to media markets." This is only one facet of a large and growing movement. Across the country, dozens of allied campaigns and initiatives are leading the charge to empower local communities and increase participatory media.

"In Philadelphia, local groups, like the Media Mobilizing Project, are fighting to ensure poor residents have the tools and resources to access the Internet," McConnell wrote. "In North Carolina, the Mountain Area Information Network is deploying a Wi-Fi network to compete with the big, expensive cable and phone companies. Rural communities across the nation are coming together to demand policy changes to meet their broadband needs."

As it turns out, the FCC's recent decisions around media ownership run counter to what the general public appears to want.