So much political reform depends on access to the media. When a few corporate executives consolidate control of the popular media, they can strangle democracy or make it dance to their tune.
When the Founders set up the Constitution, they made sure the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guaranteed that anyone could set up a newspaper -- which was state-of-the-art in 18th-century information technology.
The concept of free speech was complicated with development of radio in the 1920s and '30s. At first, practically anyone with the know-how to set up a transmitter could get the government to issue call letters for a radio station. As more stations competed for a limited number of broadcast frequences, Congress passed the Radio Act in 1927, which set up the Federal Radio Commission to assign frequencies and power levels. Among other things, it also required stations to give equal time to political candidates. In 1934, the Communications Act set up the Federal Communications Commission to oversee radio and interstate telephone service. The FCC required stations to air public affairs programming and adopted the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast licensees to present issues of public importance in an honest, equitable and balanced manner.
Ronald Reagan's FCC in 1987 repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which set the stage for the explosive growth of right-wing talk radio. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated most limits on media ownership, which has resulted in consolidation of radio and TV stations in the hands of six major media holding companies. Clear Channel Communications, based in San Antonio, Texas, gobbled up 1,200 radio stations under the new law. The FCC reported July 31 that the number of commercial radio stations in the country increased 6.8% since enactment of the Telecom Act, the number of owners declined 39% and the cost of radio ads have doubled, according to the New York Times.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) and Free Press (FreePress.net) reported in June that 91% of talk radio broadcast by the top five commercial chains is conservative, as is 76% of the news-talk formats in the top 10 radio markets. While cons claim that the imbalance is the result of consumer demand for right-wing rants, the liberals found structural problems in the regulatory system. They cited the breakdown of the public-trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public-interest requirements for broadcasting and the relaxation of ownership rules including local participation in management.
The CAP-Free Press report recommended more diversity in radio station ownership. It proposed rules restoring local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations; greater local accountability over radio licensing; and more support for public broadcasting. But the right-wing noise machine twisted the debate into one about free speech, claiming progressives wanted to muzzle right-wing talkers. Republicans actually got 113 Democrats to vote with them in June on an amendment to a bill funding federal financial entities (HR 2829), to bar the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.
Progressives are up against it, as usual. An appeals court in 2004 ordered the FCC to address minority ownership proposals as part of its review of media ownership rules. The FCC on July 31 finally released 10 massive new ownership studies and gave the public 60 days to digest them and comment on minority media ownership. (See the reports at fcc.gov.)
After more than a quarter-million Americans urged the FCC to use a valuable slice of the public airwaves to make Internet access more open, affordable and accessible to everyone, the commission on July 30 set rules requiring the winner of the highly-valued 700 MHz spectrum band to allow consumers to attach any mobile device. But Free Press noted the new rules fail to guarantee wholesale open access, which would bring new retail competition into the wireless market.
Some worthwhile legislation is in the hopper:
The Internet Freedom Preservation Act by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would make "net neutrality" -- the principle that phone and cable companies should not discriminate against Web sites and services based on their source, ownership or destination -- the law of the land. "Saving the Internet is vital for civic involvement, entrepreneurial activity, communications and free speech," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), House sponsor and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
The Internet Radio Equality Act of 2007, introduced in May by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), would rescue Internet radio by vacating a ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) that threatens to put Internet radio out of business by dramatically increasing the fees webcasters must pay to stream a song online. A companion bill (H.R. 2060) was introduced in the House by Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) in late April.
The Community Broadband Act of 2007 would ensure that local governments are not prevented from providing broadband networks to their residents and businesses. Sponsors include Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
The Local Community Radio Act by Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.) in the House, and Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Senate. The bill will promote low-power radio stations around the country.
The Broadband Data Improvement Act (S. 1492), which would address current gaps in data on the availability, speed and value of US broadband, by providing detailed information about the deployment, availability and use of broadband services in this country, got unanimous approval of the Senate Commerce Committee on July 19.
Congress also should examine postal rates that threaten small publishers that in July were forced to absorb a postal rate increase of 25% to 50% in a radical postage rate restructuring that favors "more efficient" publishers with large circulations. After the US Postal Service, reflecting long-established policy, proposed a 12% increase that would have affected magazines more or less equitably, the Bush-appointed Postal Regulatory Commission substituted a complicated pricing system proposed by Time Warner Inc., the largest magazine publisher in the country, which resulted in discounts for large mailers at the expense of small and mid-sized publishers. A coalition of magazines from left, right and center hopes to mobilize readers to petition Congress and the postal authorities for relief for smaller magazines. Robert McChesney of Free Press hopes to have legislation drafted by the fall.
In the meantime, Rupert Murdoch is the very model of a modern media baron. An Australian immigrant who never had to worry about a green card, his News Corporation owns 35 TV stations in the US, Fox Broadcasting, Fox News cable channel, 20th Century Fox films, HarperCollins book publishers, the New York Post and recently reached agreement to acquire the Wall Street Journal, which will give him a platform from which to launch the Fox Business cable channel this fall. Murdoch has not hesitated to use his worldwide media properties to promote politicians who will improve his business position.
As far as the First Amendment is concerned, News Corp. is no better than The Progressive Populist. That egalitarian spirit doesn't get us very far when it comes to dealing with
Big Media (though Murdoch's Weekly Standard will make common cause with lefties when it comes to fighting postal rates). But anybody can still set up a website on the Internet and blog to their heart's content. Some, like DailyKos.com, which started on a shoestring five years ago, now reach hundreds of thousands of viewers every day. We must never let Wall Street put a gatekeeper on the Internet, as it now has on radio and TV. -- JMC
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