There will be certain immediate financial interests -- the great family which owns the paper, the great bank which holds its bonds, the important local trade which furnishes its advertising. Concerning these people you observe no impolite word is ever spoken.
Upton Sinclair, The Brass Check
On June 2, the world as we know it will change markedly for the worse. And if you hadn't heard, well, that's by design.
On that day the Federal Communications Commission is likely to ditch the last few restrictions on who can own what in a given media market. The big guys -- General Electric/NBC, Disney/ABC, AOL Time Warner, News Corp./Fox, Clear Channel and, of course, the Tribune Co. -- are drooling like Pavlovian dogs waiting for FCC chairman Michael (son of Colin) Powell to ring the dinner bell. June 2 marks the final leg of the race to the bottom, the day when all American media merge into one giant corporation. Think USA Today in every rack, Fox News on every channel.
The FCC is being coy about exactly what is on the table. But it's no secret that Powell wants to kill the 27-year-old regulation that bars companies from owning newspapers and television stations in the same market. (Where such arrangements do exist, they have either been grandfathered in or granted an exception by the FCC.) Such rules are antiquated in a time when information flows so freely, argues Powell. Better we should have one company allowed to control everything in a market. (I don't profess to understand it, I'm just passing it on.)
Orlando is already under the pernicious influence of two of the best examples of why media companies should not be allowed to grow unchecked: Tribune Co. and Clear Channel Communications Inc. The former owns the Orlando Sentinel and part of Central Florida News 13, the latter seven radio stations in this market. The Tribune Co. owns 10 other daily newspapers, 28 broadcast and cable stations, and a handful of other ventures and partnerships. Clear Channel owns 39 TV stations and 1,225 radio stations nationwide.
(Full disclosure: Orlando Weekly is owned by Times-Shamrock, which owns 15 other publications -- most of which are small community papers in the Northeast -- and 11 radio stations. Yes, they stand to benefit by the rule changes, either by acquiring more stations or being gobbled up themselves for big bucks, in which case this column will be penned by Kathleen Parker and I retract everything bad I've ever said about the Tribune Co.)
When the gloves are off, expect to see Tribune and Clear Channel start a feeding frenzy. Radio and TV stations that are already marginally profitable, thanks to the Big Dogs and their lock on advertising rates, will go on the block and guess who will snap them up? Corporate HQs in Chicago and San Antonio get an even fatter bottom line, and here in Orlando we're going to get wall-to-wall Sentinel mediocrity. You can ignore it when it lands in your driveway, but it's harder to do when it oozes from your TV and your radio. Or perhaps you need a few more of Clear Channel's right-wing parrots, like Shannon Burke, to keep you informed about the goings-on the world. Keep that flag waving, because they're coming.
So, what exactly have our two biggest defenders of the public trust done to alert media consumers that they will soon own the world? I can't vouch for Clear Channel because it already owns too much of the radio spectrum to keep tabs on. I'll just say I doubt they've mentioned it and extend an open invitation to let them prove me wrong.
The Sentinel is flat-out in favor of the lifting the ban, admitting up front in a March 30 editorial that it would fatten up their profit margin. Isn't that really what journalism is all about? No, you say?
Well, the Sentinel did make a feeble attempt to justify its corporate avarice by noting that Americans have more access to information than ever, thanks to the Internet, cable and satellite systems. What it failed to mention is that most of those fantastic new sources of information are owned by the old media Goliaths. Same hands in new puppets. "Virtually all of the major Internet sites that people use for news are owned by Big Media; the editorial content is indistinguishable from what those broadcasters and newspapers put out," notes media critic Neal Hickey in the Columbia Journalism Review. "All of the cable-news networks -- CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, CNNfn -- are owned by three conglomerates: AOL Time Warner, GE, and News Corporation."
Powell, a Republican, hijacked the rule-change hearings with his two fellow Republican FCC commissioners. He grudgingly agreed to two public hearings. Public outrage forced him to add four more meetings, then extend the deadline for public comments until May 30. Register your feelings about the issue at www.moveon.org, or the FCC's website, www.fcc.gov/, under docket No. 02-277.
When people realize the consequences of growing media concentration (and shiny, happy coverage of the Iraq war certainly served to drive the point home), they are almost uniformly against it. But the companies who stand to gain the most are the same people in charge of getting the word out. Strange that you haven't heard more about it.