May 23, 2003

Media Deregulation Ignored (published in the Chicago Maroon, May 23, 2003)

On May 7, the Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting diversity in media ownership. This resolution flies right in the face of sweeping deregulation efforts that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is proposing and could be implemented as soon as June 2.

This possible deregulation stands to abolish six key rules on media ownership limits, including a newspaper/television cross-ownership rule (no firm can own a newspaper and TV station in the same market), a cap on radio ownership (no firm can own more than eight radio stations in a single market), and a cap on TV network ownership (no firm can own more than one of the four major TV networks). Removing any or all of these rules would likely unleash a huge wave of consolidation of commercial media firms and make our schlock-driven and commercially saturated mass media even more schlock-driven and commercially saturated.

If you didn't know about this proposed deregulation, you're not alone. One survey showed 72 percent of Americans were unaware of the issue's very existence. The mass media has been effectively silent on the topic. The Chicago City Council's media diversity resolution received a single three- sentence mention in page 81 of the May 7 Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago Tribune has editorialized on the topic just once, unsurprisingly supporting deregulation. No network news broadcast has yet to even mention the matter in primetime. I personally have mentioned this fact four times in Chicago radio call-in shows in the past two months, which I suspect is four more times than all the Chicago radio outlets have discussed the deregulation in their news reports combined.

There hasn't been a debate on this topic for a simple reason: the corporate media have a vested interest in the outcome and don't want to rouse public opinion or even public awareness. And the public (those who know about it, anyway) is overwhelmingly opposed to the deregulation. Public comments submitted to the FCC on ownership deregulation have run more than ten-to-one against deregulation. A public hearing on media ownership held at Northwestern University School of Law on April 2 drew about 150 people, every one of whom stood against deregulation. Similar hearings have been and are being held across the U.S., and no one who has submitted public comments at these hearings has spoken in favor of deregulation.

There's more at stake than just the quality of the TV programming at stake here; it could literally be a matter of life and death as illustrated by the North Dakota town of Minot. In January 2003 Minot had a late-night chemical train leak, which posed a life-threatening hazard. Police tried to alert the populace, but the emergency broadcast system was down. When police tried to broadcast the matter on the city's six radio stations, all owned by the same Clear Channel office, no one arrived for 90 minutes. The delay forced some 300 people to be hospitalized and one person died. True, there's no guarantee that people could have been alerted in time if all six of those radio stations had had different owners, but it illustrates the haunting prospects of a bloated and irresponsible media.

But a popular movement is growing on the matter of concentrated media ownership and a responsive mass media. People interested in the matter can visit for more about this issue and on how they can act. And even if this movement doesn't win the lobbyist equivalent of the Miracle on Ice, this movement is poised to grow, and certainly will be galvanized by the National Conference on Media Reform scheduled for November. Media firms may have their day on June 2, but the calendar is long and people are waking up.