The big blackout

Surprise, surprise: The TV networks that will benefit from the new FCC rules on media ownership have been keeping their viewers in the dark about the changes.

Published May 22, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission will make a decision that will probably radically change how Americans receive their news. But if, like most people, you rely on television as your primary information source, chances are you haven't heard a word about it.

At stake are the current rules on how many different properties a media conglomerate can own. Eager to create new economic efficiencies, media companies such as Viacom, AOL Time Warner and the Tribune Co. have been pressing the FCC for years to relax limits on cross-ownership on such things as TV stations and newspapers in the same city. Meanwhile Congress has held several high-profile hearings discussing the likely ramifications of the FCC's decision to invite greater media consolidation.

But to date, most network and cable news operations have all but ignored the story; a story their parent companies have taken extraordinary interest in and spent millions of dollars paying lobbyists to make a reality. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the two television news operations most reluctant to cover the FCC debate -- CBS and Fox -- are owned by the two media conglomerates with the most to gain from a lenient FCC ruling: Viacom and the News Corp.

"The broadcast media has been absolutely atrocious on this issue," says Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times." "The coverage has been virtually nonexistent."

The claim of a news blackout was recently boosted by a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which found 72 percent of Americans had heard "nothing at all" about the possible change in media ownership rules.

"That's pretty pathetic," complains one Democratic Hill source who has been working on the consolidation issue. "The press has an obligation to inform."

What's frustrating for consumer advocates and others is that the current coverage of the FCC debate simply reinforces the concerns they have about how Americans get their news, and what happens when fewer and fewer media companies control the flow of information. "The deep irony is there's a concern that media companies already control too much of the news, yet the public today is not being informed about a decision that media companies would benefit from," says Michael Bracy, director of government relations for the Future of Music Coalition, which opposes relaxing ownership limits.

Why the silence? "There is a certain amount of self-censorship for broadcast networks," suggests Peter Hart, media analyst for the left-leaning advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "Reporters and editors understand you have to be careful about what you're going to put on the air" when the story involves the business preferences of the parent company. Skeptics suggest that if the story dealt with the imminent deregulation of the pharmaceutical or telephone industry, news outlets would find a way to cover it more thoroughly.

Network producers dismiss any implication that they're shying away from the story out of corporate concerns. "We cover the story with the same level of energy we would anything else," says Paul Slavin, senior vice president at ABC News, which has been alone among the four major television networks in airing a story about the FCC debate. ABC's "Nightline" is also planning to devote a broadcast to the media ownership topic prior to the June 2 vote. "We find it to be an interesting business story."

Sources at other networks explain the paucity of coverage by saying it's still early in the story and that reporting will intensify and focus as the June 2 vote approaches. But news organizations routinely cover big Beltway topics, such as judicial nominations, well before the final vote. In fact, more times than not the final up or down vote on a policy matter in Washington signals the end of press interest, not the jumping-off point for further examination.

And according to most press accounts, the outcome at the FCC has already been determined, with the three Republican FCC commissioners committed to a yes vote on easing ownership limits, and the two Democratic commissioners opposing the change. Come June 2, the FCC is expected to overturn decades-old rules and allow one company to own both a newspaper and a television station in the same market, acquire many more local affiliate stations, and own up to three TV stations in a single large market. The FCC is expected, however, to retain the rule forbidding any two of America's four broadcast networks from merging.

The bottom line is that one company could own television, radio and newspaper outlets in the same market. And, in theory, NBC could purchase Gannett and become the country's largest newspaper publisher.

Critics say a better time for the press to begin informing the public about the consequences of the rule changes, as well as the grassroots campaign being waged against them, would have been at the end of February, when the FCC held its only scheduled public hearing on the ownership issue. None of the networks covered the event, nor did the cable outlets, and neither did the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, the Hartford Courant, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, the Atlanta Constitution, the Miami Herald, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Arizona Republic, the San Diego Tribune, the Portland Oregonian, the Denver Post, the Kansas City Star, the Indianapolis Star or the Detroit Free Press.

Not all those newspaper are owned by conglomerates in favor of lifting the ownership caps, but the laundry list does illustrate how little attention the mainstream press was giving the story while the commission was actually wrestling with the specifics.

"Napoleon said it's not necessary to censor the news -- it's sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters," notes Norm Solomon, author of "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in the Mainstream News."

Additional coverage after June 3 "will be too little, too late," complains Elizabeth Ellis, publisher of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn. She wrote a column earlier this year complaining that the Tribune Co., which owns two television stations as well as the major newspaper in nearby Hartford, was "withholding news about [the FCC debate] even as Tribune is lobbying furiously" to get cross-ownership rules repealed.

"Mum's the word," Ellis tells Salon. "Media companies don't want the public to understand what the story is because there is no public benefit to it. Media companies simply want to increase profits and decrease competition."

The Hartford Courant's ombudsman wrote a column refuting Ellis' charge of withholding information. But it wasn't the first time the daily has had to answer charges the paper was putting corporate concerns about media ownership before independent coverage.

During the 2000 presidential debate, the Courant's editorial page, which had been dependably liberal throughout the 1990s, stunned its readers by endorsing George Bush, in part because he was more "likable." Local radio talk show hosts, as well as some of the readers who flooded the paper with angry letters, suggested the Courant's publisher, Jack Davis, who made the final endorsement call, did so in hopes that a Bush administration would ease the ownership limits, which the Tribune Co. so badly wants. Davis denied the charge at the time, but did stress, "Al Gore has been an obstacle to fair treatment of the cross-ownership question." (President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but only after stripping out many of the cross-ownership provisions the FCC now wants to implement. Clinton told an administration official he never could have been elected governor of Arkansas if the state's largest newspaper owner had been allowed to run television stations in Little Rock, too.)

One of the major rules under consideration by the FCC is whether to lift the 35 percent cap on station affiliates. Currently, a network cannot own so many individual television stations that they collectively reach more than 35 percent of the U.S. television audience. Both Viacom and News Corp. are in violation of that 35 percent cap and will have to sell off profitable stations in local markets if the FCC does not relax the ownership limits. That's why Viacom's president, Mel Karmazin, was up on the Capitol Hill last week testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee, and why earlier this year News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch personally lobbied FCC commissioners, urging them to relax the ownership cap.

Yet according to a search of the LexisNexis electronic database of news transcripts, neither CBS News (home to such well-known programs as "Early Morning," "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," "48 Hours," "Face the Nation," "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II"), or Fox News ("The Big Show With John Gibson," "Special Report With Brit Hume" and "The O'Reilly Factor") have run a single segment about the pending issue of media consolidation.

"Until very recently the story has been largely an industry issue and one that did not resonate with viewers to a large degree," says CBS News spokesperson Kelli Edwards. That has now changed, and "CBS Evening News" is preparing a story on the ownership topic. ("NBC Nightly News" is also working on a media-ownership report; its sister cable channel, CNBC, has aired just a couple of reports on the topic to date.)

At Fox News, a spokesman insists, "Nobody is turning a blind eye to the story. We've covered it as a news story as it warrants and we'll continue to do so." To date, Fox News' coverage has been restricted to newsreaders occasionally reporting on pending FCC votes. The channel has not prepared a segment on the debate or invited guests on the air to discuss the topic.

Interestingly, three times during a four-month span in which the commission was working through the new rules, FCC Chairman Michael Powell appeared on Fox News' "Your World," hosted by Neil Cavuto. Not once though, did Cavuto ask Powell about the issue of media consolidation, which Cavuto's boss, Murdoch, has taken such a keen interest in.

The Fox News Web site did recently run an opinion column regarding the FCC debate. Written by a conservative from the Heritage Foundation who commended the wide, assorted range of network news coverage Americans were able to choose from during the Iraq War, the piece concluded that that wartime diversity was "proof enough that [the FCC] should relax the outdated restrictions, and let the free market do its work."

CNN, along with CNNfn, has been doing a reasonable job of covering the debate, running a handful of brief reports this year. But strangely, CNN's "Reliable Sources," the weekly round-table show that turns "a critical lens on the media," has yet to address the crucial ownership issue.

Perhaps it's telling that the news program that has devoted the most time and resources to covering the FCC debate doesn't air on commercial television: Bill Moyers' "Now," the weekly public affairs program on PBS. "Now" has returned to the topic time and again, often bringing a critical perspective. "There's Bill Moyers and there's nobody else," quips the Democratic Hill source.

Moyers' persistence seems to have annoyed the leading congressional crusader for media concentration, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. Appearing on Fox News' "O'Reilly Factor" earlier this month, Tauzin, who has been a relentless champion of widespread media deregulation, teed off on Moyers in an unusually personal way. "We know that Moyers, regardless of how many Emmys or other awards he's won, has gone from being a respected journalist to being a crusader for liberal causes," he told O'Reilly, whose program regularly attacks Moyers on the air.

The next day, Moyers' "Now" called Tauzin's office to invite the congressman to appear on the PBS show to continue the debate. Tauzin declined.

Others have run into troubles when trying to broach the topic of media concentration. Author Norm Solomon says not long ago he was a radio talk show guest on KFI in Los Angeles, a Clear Channel station, when the topic of runaway media consolidation came up. Solomon cited Clear Channel by name: It's the largest radio operator in the country and has come under strong criticism for the effect that its consolidation of control has had over radio and large parts of the music industry. It wasn't until later in the program, when a listener called in to complain about Solomon's answer getting bleeped off the air, that he realized his response had never been broadcast. A station engineer, apparently anxious about the Clear Channel reference, muted his on-air critique.

"That says something about the climate for discussion today," says Solomon.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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