Joe Conason's Journal

Will Powell be able to explain how further deregulating the media helps the public? We may soon find out.

Published June 2, 2003 4:33PM (EDT)

Corporate conservatism in control
Now that FCC chairman Michael Powell has pushed through new rules promoting the further oligopolization of the American media, we may have the debate that he tried to avoid, ignore and stifle. Now Powell may have to confront the question he has so far failed to answer: How does this evisceration of traditional democratic constraints benefit the public?

Reading and listening to interviews with Powell in recent weeks, I have heard him defend the rules voted today mainly in negative terms. He claims that he isn't seeking to completely deregulate the giant media corporations; he insists that his critics exaggerate the dominant role of those corporations; and he vows, rather unconvincingly, that he will maintain vigilance against any untoward consolidation of market power. Beyond a few remarks about "modernizing" old regulations and protecting the profitability of the broadcasting giants, however, Powell has offered little justification for this decision.

From the libertarian right, the most coherent argument to be heard is that the growth of cable television and the Internet void any concern about the media oligopoly. Does anybody really believe that cable and the Web provide a serious alternative in cities where one company controls the only newspaper and several TV stations? On the surface, this dispute seems to transcend ideology. A wide variety of organizations have joined forces to stop Powell; analysts as different as Tom Shales and William Safire have eloquently expressed opposition. As Safire explained: "The concentration of power -- political, corporate, media, cultural -- should be anathema to conservatives. The diffusion of power through local control, thereby encouraging individual participation, is the essence of federalism and the greatest expression of democracy."

That is a rather naive interpretation of conservatism as presently represented by Safire's friends in the Republican Party. The driving forces behind Powell, in the White House and the Congress, are indeed highly ideological but hardly conservative in Safire's sense. Their ideology is corporate conservatism, which treats democracy as a procedural formality that should under no circumstances interfere with the prerogatives of business and wealth. Powell is a corporate conservative who sees his job as the expansion of those same prerogatives for the media mammoths. He worries more about their profit position than about the protection of the public interest. He knows that the deregulation of radio has led to the same hideous situation (or "problems," as he delicately puts it) that Powell promises won't result from these rules.

On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain has scheduled a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee at which all five FCC commissioners will testify on the new rules. Powell should be asked how his changes will benefit consumers and promote democratic diversity -- and why he has so far refused to release recommendations and studies by his own staff.
[11:52 a.m. PDT, June 2, 2003]

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