Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina has caused many to marvel at a rare event: Corporate media diverging from White House talking points, criticizing the administration, and bypassing the Karl Rove spin machine. Unlike Iraq coverage, we're seeing the real, graphic and disturbing realities. But the real story is not how good press coverage of Katrina has been: It is the abysmal state of the media to which it's being compared.
There are several media issues on the docket in Washington this fall that will have a profound impact on whether the media will get better or worse.
Media Ownership: Most major media outlets are already owned by a handful of massive corporations whose only concern is the bottom line. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin - under tremendous pressure from media corporations and their friends at the White House - is expected to begin the process of lifting ownership caps that prevent daily newspapers from owning radio and TV stations in the same market and vice versa. These are the same rules Michael Powell pushed in 2003 – prompting millions of calls to Congress and the FCC. Martin is hoping to sneak them in quietly before the general public starts paying attention.
Public Broadcasting: The United States provides less funding for public broadcasting than any other developed nation (per capita). Without good public service media, all we’d have left are the commercial media that provide a profoundly narrow range of debate. We’ve seen the virtual elimination of investigative journalism (into substantive political issues, not the celebrity of the month), rampant commercialism, and an ever-cozier relationship between government, media and corporate elites. Yet this summer the House voted to slash nearly half of the budget for public broadcasting – which was already being attacked from the right for its alleged “liberal bias.” Huge public backlash pushed the House to restore some of the money and convinced the Senate to move a bill with full funding. The two versions soon will be reconciled. But don’t be surprised if the Republicans try to cut funding again, citing the huge cost of cleaning up after Katrina.
Broadband over the Public Airwaves: Congress will decide whether to provide Americans with a chance at affordable broadband. Using a slice of the public airwaves being returned to the government as part of the digital television transition, legislators could designate the people’s airwaves to support high-speed, wireless Internet. This is about the future of communications in America, as TV, radio and telephones will soon be all delivered to your home via a broadband connection. Opening the airwaves to low-cost Internet access would be a huge boon to consumers; most people can’t afford broadband (65% of Americans don’t have it). But Congress has competing priorities. They want to auction off your spectrum to pay for war and tax cuts for the rich, leaving us stuck with the corrupt system we currently enjoy: duopoly control of Internet access by cable and telephone companies that charge high prices for slow connection speeds. What passes for “broadband” here is 100 times slower than what they’re rolling out in Japan and South Korea. The United States is now ranked 16th in the world in broadband penetration, having slipped from fifth when Bush took office.
If you want better media, you need better media policy. So keep an eye on these crucial media policy debates and weigh in as they play out this fall. Just don’t count on the corporate media to tell you what’s going on.