Who Controls Media Today and How the People Can Take it Back

Our “five corporations own all of the world’s media” routine is getting a little tired. It’s about time we beefed up our knowledge about how our Internet is threatened, how print magazines are bowing like Tony Blair under postal rate hikes, who’s slapping the hands of communities reaching for radio stations, and who’s kissing whom on the CEO playground (irrelevant maybe, but are we below blackmail?).  

Alas, navigating the multi-faceted media reform battle can be confusing and frustrating.

Open access – what’s that? Free the IPhone – from whom? LPFM, FCC, CRB – WTF?   

As we face what could be the most important years for the future of media, it’s vital that we embrace a comprehensive understanding of this wonky talk. Here are the basics so we can storm boardrooms and scare haughty Hill interns with more than a “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Big Media has got to go!” 

Big Media  

Okay, so we still need to know about Big Media. Only a few hands are writing our history these days, and the push for greater media consolidation is ferocious. Just this month, media titan Rupert Murdoch snatched up the Wall Street Journal. Of course, this consolidation has squeezed out other voices and media owners, particularly women and people of color. Consider two studies by the media reform organization Free Press, which found that just 7.7 percent of racial or ethnic minorities own full-power commercial broadcast radio stations, and 3.3 percent of this demographic own broadcast television stations. 

This cleansing is poised to continue. Once again, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is trying to change media ownership rules to allow a handful of media giants to scoop up even more local television channels, radio stations and newspapers in a single market. Think of the media conglomerates as a child who hordes all of the Lego’s – only Big Media is playing for keeps. 

Proposed rule changes by the FCC would give media a Botox injection – Ahh! All the newspapers and TV stations look the same – while further eroding our free press. After all, it’s not really free when we have to pay such a high price for it. And of course, that price is the drowning out of our voices, our concerns, our questions and our revolution as media is consolidated.  

According to Free Press, “If… changes were approved, one company could potentially own the major daily newspaper, eight radio stations and three television stations in the same town.” Sign me up for a subscription to The Stifled Times!  

As promised, the FCC has been charging around the country like a traveling circus to hold public hearings about the proposed rule changes. There may not be a Big Top, but there’s certainly an act – “See the FCC Commissioner Smile and Nod.” Only two more public hearings are scheduled, with the next one taking place in Chicago on September 20.  

The Internet  

Internet providers are like Congressmen – they only go where they get paid. Live in a rural area or low-income community? You can forget about high-speed Internet access. And where there is access, residents are often priced-out of logging on. While media reform groups are working to replace the rope bridge swinging over the digital divide with a more steady footing, communities are using the rope to harness their own broadband access. Municipal broadband projects – high speed Internet provided through local government support – are sprouting up across the nation to offer affordable – sometimes free – Internet access to residents. 

Of course, the telecommunications and cable companies who have a monopoly as Internet providers are crying “No Fair,” and are doing everything they can to thwart communities from taking back the pipes – from spreading myths that municipal broadband is shoddy to leveraging their weight in Congress to make such measures illegal. A handful of states have already passed legislation that restricts or bands municipal broadband efforts.  

But these states may have more than angry constituents to deal with; in July, Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced the Community Broadband Act, which would prohibit states from banning municipalities from offering broadband to their residents.  

But getting a bill like this to pass will be difficult in a climate where the FCC is even refusing to simply release data – the names of broadband providers and where they operate – to give us a more complete picture of broadband deployment in the US. As previously reported by Toward Freedom, the Center for Public Integrity is suing the FCC for the information, and plans to divulge it to the public through its Media Tracker website. Currently, consumers can use the Media Tracker to find which companies offer radio, newspaper and television services in their Zip codes. 

Of course, the Community Broadband Act would have been mute had the FCC acted in the public’s interest last month when it announced its rules for the ensuing spectrum giveaway. Here’s the gist: By 2009, television broadcasters will be releasing a chunk of spectrum called the 700 MHz band as they transition to digital broadcasting. The FCC is planning on auctioning this spectrum, which is prime Internet real estate – the strong spectrum can carry a wireless Internet signal through buildings and over mountains faster than a bad comic book pun.  

Many media activists see this as an opportunity for the government to ensure that all American’s can log on by enshrining “open access” into the auction rules, which would allow service providers to buy access from the spectrum owner at wholesale rates and resell access to the public. Although thousands of people appealed to the FCC in support of this provision, the Commission opted against the rule, effectively handing the major corporations another gem to add to their crown. Shortly after the FCC’s decision, Free Press’s Timothy Karr responded with a grimace, “Allowing third parties access to the network as wholesalers is the only way to break up the oligopoly telecoms hold over the Internet.”  

The FCC did, however, approve two other elements of open access: "open devices" and "open applications." These rules require the auction winner to allow consumers to use any device or application on the network. Put in more practical terms, it means that products such as the IPhone could be ripped out of the hands of AT&T, which has an exclusive contract with Apple as the phone’s Internet service provider. Without open access, consumers are chained to AT&T when they purchase an IPhone. But analyst Avi Greengart warns in RCRWirelessNews, “Despite the FCC’s new open-access provisions, the tight carrier control over most wireless devices will remain, and devices taking advantage of the open access provisions will either be expensive or risky propositions for the vendor.” 

To throw another ball in ever juggling hands, media activists are not only working to spread the Internet, they’re working to save it by preserving a longstanding principle called network neutrality. The principle holds that users should be able to access any content available on the Internet without interference or speed discrimination from Internet service providers. An article I previously wrote for The NewStandard said, “Network neutrality proponents fear that without regulation, telecommunications and cable companies will begin discriminating against some content as it comes over the wires to consumers. Internet activists also fear that aside from the financial incentive to give priority to certain content, companies might have an ideological motive to slow information from dissident websites or sources that criticize certain corporations.” 

Non-Commercial Media  

If you thought the bad news stopped there, unfortunately this primer reads like a report on the status of the occupation of Iraq – it just keeps getting worse. Last month, print publications were hit with a steep postal rate hike that sent some of your favorite magazines reeling. The rate, adopted by the United States Postal Service, was written in part by the media giant Time Warner, and is a boon for the largest periodicals while potentially pushing already teetering smaller publications over the edge.  

It’s not just the future of independent print publications that is at risk; Internet radio is seeing its own dark day. While listeners have been able to turn to the Internet to find diverse radio content missing from their consolidated dials, the smaller stations may again be elbowed out, this time online. In March, the Copyright Review Board (CRB), an arm of the Library of Congress, changed the royalty structure for webcasters, increasing the amount they pay for their content. Once again, the government adopted rules crafted by an industry group, the Recording Industry Association of America. The rates create a serious economic burden for small non-commercial webcasters and could smother emerging radio stations. National Public Radio appealed the decision, but the CRB turned up its nose, letting the new rates stand. Webcasters are now looking to Congress for relief. Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) introduced the Internet Radio Equality Act (H.R. 2060), which would reverse the CRB decision. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) introduced the bill’s counterpart in the Senate.  

National Public Radio isn’t just wringing its hands over the state of Internet radio. Public broadcasting is waging its own battle for survival as the Bush administration wields an axe. Media reform groups have been pressuring Congress to keep and restore funding for public broadcasting, and it looks like lawmakers’ ears are perked. A campaign to support public broadcasting, TellThemPublicMatters.org, is reporting that Congress has taken the first steps in rejecting the administration’s funding cuts, but the appropriations process is not over. The groups also warns that “There are challenges to the editorial independence of public broadcasting coming from interest groups and Member of Congress,” who “leverage federal funding to influence programming decisions.” 

Don’t drink the poison just yet. There are a few other slivers of hope for non-commercial media. Communities across the nation may be chiming in on the radio if Congress passes the Local Community Radio Act, which would create thousands of low-power FM (LPFM) stations. Although current FCC rules prohibit many communities from acquiring an LPFM license, the bill would clear space on the spectrum for local and independent programming.  

While these LPFM signals are short-reaching, the FCC is giving community-based non-profit organizations a chance to snag a high-powered radio frequency. During one week in October, the FCC is opening the Non-Commercial Educational (NCE) full-power radio-licensing window and allowing organizations to file for FM licenses. Media reform groups, such as the coalition Radio for People, are urging communities to start the filing process immediately, saying the opportunity for an FM license may be now or never.  

Get Active! 

If this primer hasn’t made the case for urgency already, I’ll state it outright: we need an army of media activists to right this ship. Join up. Jen Howard, associate communications director with Free Press, has a compelling argument for making media policy one of the key issues you organize around. “Anything that you’re concerned about – health care, the environment, gun control or gun rights – you depend on the media to inform you about that issue and to facilitate a public dialogue,” Howard said. “When corporations focus on profit instead of journalism, the stories suffer, the debate suffers, and ultimately, public policy suffers because there’s not any accountability in Washington or in our communities.” 

Here are a few tips for how we can take back the media: 

Caravan out to the next FCC hearing on Big Media in Chicago. Can’t make it to the middle? File a comment with the FCC.  

Engage your community or state to consider investing in municipal wireless, or find a network already near you. And when you’re finished with that, appeal to lawmakers to support the Community Broadband Act.  

If you’re not yet tired of appealing to Congress, write another letter in support of public broadcasting and more LPFM radio licenses.   

Forgo working within the strictures of a system that has already led to the demise of our press, and start increasing your support for independent media. Or become a media maker yourself. Remember – we aren’t just fighting new changes that threaten the media; we need to roll back the old changes that have allowed our media to become a scandal it won’t report on. 


Megan Tady is a National Political Reporter for In These Times and a freelance journalist based in Western Massachusetts.