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Guest Editorial

Bad news for democracy: big media may get bigger

Who owns the media? The answer: fewer and fewer major corporations. And if the Federal Communications Commission gets its way, that trend will accelerate.

Is that a bad thing? Perhaps not, if you are a major shareholder of one of those corporations, or if you prefer nationally syndicated - and homogenized - news and entertainment.

On the other hand, media consolidation is a very bad thing if you like information provided independently and in some depth, or if you prefer local community news, or if you appreciate diversity of opinion and vigorous debate, or if - like me - you have a perspective that often runs counter to that of Corporate America.

There's nothing sinister about it. Media consolidation is neither a vast right- or left-wing conspiracy. It's simple economics. It's megacorporations making profit-minded decisions to buy up competitors and then cut costs by merging, shrinking or eliminating news departments, by broadcasting syndicated national shows instead of locally produced programs, or by making hundreds of radio stations conform to specific formats and uniform playlists.

In the past, our government vigorously opposed media consolidation. For decades, limits existed on the number of newspapers, radio and television stations that a single company could own. The idea was to encourage autonomous media outlets owned by a diverse collection of companies and individuals. Making sure Americans had access to multiple voices and opinions promoted balanced public discourse, and therefore democracy itself.

There was even something called the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance in a balanced manner. This often meant giving equal time to opposing viewpoints.

In today's world of politically charged talk radio, deliberately biased cable news networks and 24-hour news "analysis" by stridently partisan talking heads, the Fairness Doctrine sounds positively arcane and quaint, doesn't it? But that was the law until 1987 when the Reagan-era FCC repealed it. Less than a year later, the Rush Limbaugh Show was nationally syndicated.

Would you say the quality of public discourse has improved since then?

But getting back to media consolidation, as recently as 1983, there were 50 companies that owned the majority of all U.S. news media. By 1990, this number had dwindled to fewer than two dozen. And now, thanks to major deregulation included in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, that number is now six.

In 1996, the largest radio owners controlled fewer than 65 stations. Today, radio giant Clear Channel alone owns more than 1,200. Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp. and NBC/GE now control the big four networks (70 percent of the primetime television market share), most cable channels, and vast holdings in radio, publishing, movie studios, music, Internet and other media sectors.

These corporations didn't swallow up all the small, independently owned media outlets to improve journalistic integrity or promote democratic discourse. Quite the contrary, they have proven willing to sacrifice both to make money. And the way they do it, as described above, is to cut costs.

One result has been that television news has gotten so bad that, very literally, it's a joke.

Two of cable TV's most popular programs, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, are fake news shows that devote much of their time to mocking the journalistic integrity of the major networks and of Fox, CNN and MSNBC news. A 2006 Indiana University analysis of the news content of The Daily Show and primetime network news found that, although both programs focused on "infotainment" and ratings, the news content was actually greater in The Daily Show!

The first step to getting out of this hole is to stop digging. But instead, the FCC is proposing to get out a bigger shovel and further relax or eliminate the public interest limits on media ownership.

On Nov. 30, two FCC commissioners who strongly oppose media consolidation participated in a public hearing in Seattle (the three FCC members who support it declined an invitation to attend). They heard testimony from a diverse group of business, labor and public-interest groups from around Washington state, almost all of whom strongly oppose further relaxing media ownership rules.

Read what happened at that hearing - and how you can urge the FCC to maintain media ownership limits - at www.ReclaimTheMedia.org.

Rick Bender is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the state.

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