As a senator, Barack Obama fought to prevent greater media consolidation.
In 2007, he opposed a vote by the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission to lift the ban on allowing one company to own a daily newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market.
"We must ensure that we have an open media market that represents all of the voices in our diverse nation and allows them to be heard," the future president said before the FCC's vote.
Why then is the Obama FCC reportedly pushing for nearly the same rule changes the Republicans failed to carry out in the Bush years? And why -- when those efforts to further weaken media ownership limits were rejected by the public, the courts and congressional leaders -- would the FCC expect a different response this time? Just because a Democrat is now in charge?
To his credit, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has demonstrated a newfound willingness to stand up to the biggest corporations. He deserves accolades for showing why the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is not in the public interest. But that just makes his rumored moves on the traditional media front all the more baffling.
99% Against Big Media
So far Genachowski has spent little time in office focusing on media ownership. But there are few media policy issues that have galvanized as much widespread public opposition as runaway media consolidation. Millions of people have spoken out over the past decade against allowing big media corporations to swallow up more local media outlets. They understand the harm caused when companies like News Corp., Tribune and Sinclair place profits over investing in newsrooms and the information needs of the audiences they serve.
When the FCC tried to gut its ownership rules in 2003 and again in 2007, the public was outraged. They filled hearings to the rafters, and 99 percent of the public comments received by the agency opposed greater media concentration.
The courts have been no more welcoming of the FCC's attempts to do big media's bidding. In 2004, a federal appeals court rejected the rules pushed through by then-Chairman Michael Powell. And just last summer, the same court threw out ex-Chair Kevin Martin's loophole-ridden rules that undermined the longstanding ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership. The court castigated the FCC for failing to listen to public input.
Obama wasn't alone in his opposition to greater media concentration. He was joined by, among others, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. And in 2008, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation to overturn the FCC's weakened cross-ownership rule.
Just last year, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Olympia Snowe, joined by then-Sen. Byron Dorgan, sent a letter reminding the FCC "of the Senate's interest in public interest limits for media ownership and that the current Commission is under no obligation to follow the footsteps of its predecessors" who sought to get rid of the ownership rules.
The Truth About Media Consolidation
Of course, big media companies have not given up pressuring the FCC and Congress to twist the rules to their liking. They claim that the Internet has changed everything and they need more consolidation to compete.
In truth, incumbent media dominate online as well. An FCC-commissioned study released earlier this year found that "online local news markets resemble downsized versions of traditional media news markets, with the same news stories produced by the same newspapers and television stations."
There's no doubt that the Internet has disrupted the sky-high monopoly profits newspapers once enjoyed, though most are still profitable. Many media companies are struggling financially largely due to self-inflicted wounds: They got too big too fast and now aren't able to service all the debt they took on trying to please insatiable Wall Street investors.
If consolidation has been bad for business, it has been far worse for journalism. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent years, and many foreign and statehouse bureaus have been shuttered. More consolidation will mean even fewer reporters on the beat finding out what's happening in local communities.
The FCC Fails to Deal with Diversity
Media consolidation has also hindered the ability of people of color and women to become broadcast station owners. People of color own just 3 percent of all full-power TV stations and 7 percent of radio stations; women own just 6 percent of all broadcast outlets.
Even though the recent federal court ruling rejecting the FCC's rules took the agency to task for failing to address minority and female ownership, the Obama FCC appears determined to pursue the same failed policies as its predecessors.
What happened to the Obama who, as a candidate, called out the FCC for promoting "the concept of consolidation over diversity" and promised to "encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media"?
Last month, a coalition of civil rights groups wrote a letter to the FCC lamenting that the agency "has no meaningful policies to address racial and gender inequities in media ownership and has ignored the impact of its media ownership rules on those inequities."
"As media consolidation grows, people of color and women become less significant players in the media ecosystem," concluded the groups, which included the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, NOW and the NAACP. "The Commission must acknowledge that fact and take action to remedy it."
Fifty more media, women's and social justice organizations (including Free Press) weighed in today with another letter to the agency, warning, "the continued absence of FCC action in the face of deep and intractable ownership disparities is unacceptable."
The signers asked the FCC to evaluate the impact of its media ownership rules on ownership opportunities for women and people of color; take proactive measures to promote ownership of broadcast stations by under-represented groups; and guard against further erosion of media ownership among these groups by maintaining existing media ownership limits.
Now Is the Time to Make Your Voice Heard
On Thursday night, FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps will be in Atlanta for a hearing on media ownership issues at Georgia Tech. This event will be a chance to remind the agency how destructive media consolidation is for local communities.
But even if you're not in Atlanta, you can still tell the FCC what you think. If this talk of going back to Bush's ownership rules is just a trial balloon, now is the time to pop it.
What we need isn't more disastrous media consolidation. We need media that truly represent, as Barack Obama himself said not long ago, "all of the voices in our diverse nation."
We won't get there if we fall back on the failed policies of the past.
Co-authored with Joseph Torres.
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