As America’s major media companies pressure the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow for more cross-ownership, Eric Klinenberg examines how media consolidation is suffocating democracy and even putting people’s lives at risk.
An associate professor of sociology at New York University and native of Chicago, Klinenberg began to realize the dangers of a consolidated media when doing research on the 1995 Chicago heat wave for his previous book, Heat Wave (2002, University of Chicago Press). When more than 700 low-income seniors died from heat exhaustion in a short period of time, Klinenberg found that a stripped-down local media failed to properly cover the crisis. He spoke to Sean Condon from Adbusters from New York about the FCC’s push for deeper media deregulation and how Americans are starting to push back.
Sean Condon: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently looking at possibly loosening media ownership rules. Are they simply responding to the times or are we seeing something extraordinary?
Eric Klinenberg: This is the trend of our time. We’re living through a moment where the philosophy of governance is changing from one in which states have a legitimate role in regulating corporations to promote the public interest to one in which powerful state actors relinquish control to the markets. The way that I characterize media policy is that it’s being driven by a blind faith in the power of the market and new technology to give citizens the news and information they need. But the record shows this is far from the case. The United States has just gone through a decade of unprecedented consolidation in the media industry and citizens are actually pretty upset about what’s happened to their local media. Media consolidation is a very abstract concept. It’s hard for some people to understand why one enormous conglomerate has dozens of subsidiaries that are themselves pretty damn big. It’s dizzying to look at those media ownership charts. On the one hand, it’s like an awesome display of power and on the other hand, it’s hard to know what it means and how it affects our lives. But if you ask someone what has happened to your local radio stations, what has happened to your local newspaper, what do you think of the quality of your local television news programming, people will have a lot of [negative things] to say.
SC: What have the biggest consequences of media consolidation been?
EK: The United States, unlike most of the countries that it’s normally compared to, has always had a far more corporate media system. But the key to making the system function was ensuring competition in local markets. We live in a time in which there’s no question that there’s enormous competition at the national and international market because of the internet, but in the local market consolidation has crushed competition. We have newspaper monopolies, radio oligopolies and cable monopolies, and the result is a diminished and degraded product and that’s one of the reasons why I think the old media are in so much trouble today.
SC: Who is controlling the FCC’s push for deregulation?
EK: The FCC is a captured agency – captured by the industry it’s supposed to be regulating. We’ve seen the FCC cave in to demands from big media conglomerates on issues across the spectrum. It seems to me that the FCC has forgotten its public interest obligations. It acts as if its job is to promote the interests of a small number of giant corporations. Michael Powell, Colin Powell’s son, was the chairman of the FCC during the first Bush administration and he literally said, “I can’t regulate for the public interest because I don’t know what the public interest means.”
SC: Do you think the FCC is an effective watchdog?
EK: I think the FCC has been very effective at changing the rules of the media business to suit the interests of the world’s largest communications companies. When the FCC wants to be effective, it can be. But I’m concerned that it pays too much attention to censoring speech in an arbitrary manner and not enough attention to promoting the public interest and maintaining quality journalism and diverse voices in the media.
One of the really striking things that happens when you have consolidation – when these large companies start taking over so much of the field – they inevitably buy out the small independently-operated minority and female owned stations too. In the last decade we’ve seen a dramatic decline in the number of minority and female owned broadcast stations, television and radio. In a time when politicians give lip service to the virtues of diversity, the polices that promote media consolidation are, in fact, crushing small independent, minority owned stations.
SC: The FCC tried to loosen media ownership rules before in 2003, but the courts turned it down. How determined are they to see these rules broken down?
EK: The FCC is a pretty interesting agency. It’s extraordinary how much power this agency has, given how undemocratic it is. The way that it’s constituted is that the sitting president gets to [pick three of the five commissioners]. So the Bush administration has made sure it’s got three Republicans willing to advance the deregulatory agenda, which is why the FCC is pushing so hard again this year. But what surprised a lot of people was that the 1996 Telecommunications Act [which allowed for an unprecedented level of media consolidation] came under [Bill] Clinton and, in fact, the Democrats in the White House ended up being far more supportive of media consolidation than many people would have liked them to be.
But that was a different time, and today I think the Democrats get this issue and a lot of congressional Republicans see media consolidation as a no-win situation for the American public. Figures like Trent Lott and the National Rifle Association are concerned that media consolidation has meant a loss of local control for the communities where they serve. Even economic libertarians like William Safire, who is famously opposed to almost all regulation, got really upset about media consolidation because he thought deregulation had gone too far.
SC: The FCC is holding more public hearings this time around than it did in 2003. Do you think they’re more aware of the problems with media consolidation?
EK: They are holding hearings. The commissioners are aware that there is an overwhelming public opposition and the Republicans on the commission are in a bind today because on the one hand they feel compelled to promote the Bush Administration’s agenda, but on the other hand the three Republican commissioners have political ambitions of their own. I think they’re a little reluctant to become full-SCale deregulators in the [former FCC chairman] Michael Powell fashion because they know they may pay a price in their future careers. Kevin Martin, who is current chairman of the FCC, has already signaled that he’d like to get rid of the cross-ownership ban as a matter of law, but he’s surely doing it in a slow fashion. Powell held some hearings also, not as many as Martin. I think we need to make a distinction between an FCC hearing and an FCC listening. I’m not convinced that the Republicans on the FCC will actually listen to what Americans say at the hearings.
SC: One of the major complaints about the FCC is that its commissioners often end up taking jobs in the media industry. What sort of changes needs to happen within the FCC to make it a better watchdog?
EK: I think the FCC needs to revive its public interest commitment and commissioners should live up to their obligation to promote policies that serve citizens and improve the quality of our culture and democracy, rather than those that boost the bottom line. When you have an agency with a revolving door leading straight to the biggest media and private equity companies in the world, you have a recipe for corruption.
SC: If the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the floodgates for consolidation, is it too late to stop the flooding?
EK: 1996 was really a watershed moment, but it was a watershed moment as well in that it really woke up the American people. It ushered in a new moment in American cultural politics in which the American citizens started to say, “media policy should be a matter of public policy” and began demanding that citizens begin to participate in the decision making about the rules that would change their media system. I compare the emergence of today’s media reform movement to the emergence of the environmental movement 40 years ago. Today there are literally millions of Americans in all parts of the country on the left, on the right and everywhere in between who have decided that media reform is one of the most urgent issues in the country.