News Blackout: The FCC Was Getting Ready to Loosen the Rules Limiting Media Concentration. A Grassroots Movement Had Sprung Up to Derail the Plan. but You Wouldn't Have Learned Much about the Controversy from Many News Outlets Owned by the Big Conglomerates That Were Eager to Cash In
Layton, Charles, American Journalism Review
It was early September 2002 when Karen Young, a grassroots activist from Chicago, got wind of what the Federal Communications Commission was up to.
Young was attending a conference in Seattle, a diverse gathering that included, among others, some Philadelphians involved in the low-power FM radio movement, a West Coast group promoting public-access television and a guy concerned about human-rights abuses in East Timor who had been trying without success to get his issue into the mainstream press. What unified them all was a deep distrust of the giant corporations that own America's major news outlets and therefore, in the activists' view, control the public discourse.
It suddenly became the talk of the conference when the FCC announced that it was reviewing--and might soon change--most of its limits on ownership of radio and TV stations and newspapers.
This was scarcely a surprise. The activists knew that the corporations wanted to grow even larger, through new mergers and acquisitions, and that the FCC's new chairman, Michael Powell, wanted to help them.
Young had seen the effects of such consolidation in Chicago. After Fox acquired its second television station there, it killed off all of that station's locally produced programs, including an acclaimed children's educational series. After Viacom, through a merger, wound up owning both of' Chicago's all-news AM stations, it converted one of them to sports talk. And now that Clear Channel Communications owned six Chicago radio stations, Viacom seven, Disney four and the Salt Lake City-based Bonneville International Corporation five, the result, according to critics, was cookie-cutter formats all along the dial.
Young knew people who had lost their jobs in these consolidations. "It used to be," she says, "that you would have three separate stations in three separate buildings, and each one of them had a sales manager, each one of them had a promotion director; each one of them had a program director. Now, no. There's one building, one program director for two or three stations, one promotion director for two or three stations."
Her colleagues in other cities had witnessed the same trends. For example, after Viacom came to own two TV stations in Los Angeles, field reporters began earring microphones labeled KCBS on one side and KCAL on the other.
Before leaving Seattle, Young went online to check the news coverage of the FCC's announcement. She says she looked at 10 metropolitan dailies to see if they'd carried stories. She found only one, in the Los Angeles Times. "That's when I realized," she says, "that they really had no intention of letting the public know that this was happening."
Young was right.
Over the next eight months, as the FCC moved toward final action on a plan that would greatly benefit a handful of large companies, most newspapers and broadcast outlets owned by those companies barely mentioned the issue.
In cities all around the country, people like Karen Young were staging small demonstrations, collecting names on petitions, writing press releases, manning information tables at public gatherings, submitting op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, blowing off steam on the Internet and organizing educational forums on university campuses. But most Americans knew nothing of this, thanks to the media's silence.
In February, with the FCC debate in full flower, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 72 percent of Americans had heard "nothing at all" about it. Only 4 percent said they had heard "a lot." The survey also found that the more people did know, the more they tended to oppose what the FCC was doing. In other words, Big Media had an interest in keeping people uninformed.
Even in late April and early May--as organizations with serious political clout (including such odd bedfellows as the National Organization for Women and the National Rifle Association) became involved, and as members of Congress, energized by a popular groundswell, started holding news conferences--even then, most of the media stayed silent. …