Big Media's FCC Conspiracy of Silence

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

What if they held a critical Federal Communications Commission forum and nobody came?

That is, what if none of the major mass-media conglomerates with issues pending before the FCC bothered to come out and cover it at all?

More than 100 concerned citizens attended an FCC forum on media ownership at Northwestern University's downtown School of Law last week. That included the FCC's Michael Copps, one of five commissioners who will soon be voting on U.S. media ownership regulations.

"Apart from war and peace," he said in an opening statement, "no issues confronting America are as important."

Yet not a single corporate-owned Chicago media outlet covered it - not the local network TV affiliates, not the Viacom-owned Infinity Broadcasting all-news radio outlet WBBM 780-AM, not the downtown daily newspapers, not Tribune-owned WGN-TV Channel 9, not even its cable "news" sibling, CLTV.

In fact, although the ownership "reforms" being considered threaten to dramatically alter the media landscape, for the most part in favor of those corporate owners, the proposed deregulation has received almost no coverage on TV or radio or in newspapers.

"The media have not done a very good job of teeing this dialogue up for the American people," Copps said. "I haven't seen the first network report on media ownership."

"The Tribune has barely covered the issue," pointed out panelist Gretchen Soderlund, a University of Chicago communications professor. Yet the Tribune Co. figures to profit greatly from an end to the ban on cross-ownership between newspapers and TV and radio stations. (The Trib's ownership of Channel 9 and WGN 720-AM was grandfathered in prior to the 1975 regulation, but an end to the ban would free its hand in other markets.)

When Disney's Zemira Jones, who runs all-talk WLS 890-AM, alternative-rock WZZN 94.7-FM and, to a lesser extent, all-sports WMVP 1000-AM, made a dismissive remark about the lack of public interest in this media-ownership debate, Ed Marszewski, publisher of Lumpen magazine, snapped back, "Maybe there'd be more people here if you actually talked about it on your radio stations."

In short, the time has come to label this what it is: a conspiracy of silence.

The FCC, the body appointed by the government to oversee the publicly owned broadcast airwaves, is a willing co-conspirator. Bush-administration FCC Chairman Michael Powell has pooh-poohed the public interest and set a date of June 2 for votes on limits set for corporate radio ownership, network ownership of TV stations and cross-ownership.

Not only has Powell set an early date for deciding these critical issues, he has rebuffed Copps' attempts to stir public debate, refusing to allot FCC funds for public forums. Last week's forum, held in a stately Lincoln Hall lecture room modeled after the British House of Commons, was actually sponsored by NU's Media and Entertainment Law Society with the help of Chicago Media Watch, a local grassroots organization.

Why all the silence? Because the media corporations and Powell, whom Soderlund labeled "pro-big-media," understand that if the public realizes that it's their interest and their ownership of the airwaves at stake, the "reforms" will lose. …