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FCC Revelations Have Deep Implications for Democracy

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Message Dave Wheelock
Perhaps scandal has lost its power to move us. The combined effects of daily revelations of corruption and hypocrisy by elected officeholders, appointed agency officials, corporate managers, lobbyists, judges, priests, doctors - seemingly every post of public trust - has left Americans disillusioned, anxious, and disgusted. And, worst of all, immobilized.

Of course for every outrage and neglected problem facing us today, there is at least one group of people taking right action in response. In fact, there are so many worthy fights for us "do-gooders" to address that our energies and resources are fractured. Even thus, the implications of an ongoing and festering disgrace should claim our unwavering attention.

In mid-September of this year it was revealed during Congressional confirmation hearings of new Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin that a study warning of the effects of media consolidation, commissioned two years earlier by the FCC itself, had been ordered shredded by "officials" within the agency. Fortunately, a whistleblower salvaged a copy and turned it over to a member of the congressional panel interviewing Martin.

"Media consolidation" describes the concentration of ownership in television, newspapers, radio, publishing, film, internet, and a host of other communication forms you might not often think about (like billboards and concert tickets), among fewer and fewer corporations. Consolidation is nothing new, of course; virtually all sectors of our economy have for decades been transforming from countless locally-controlled businesses into vast, intertwined groups of publicly-traded corporations. In 1983 an estimated 50 companies controlled the overwhelming majority of U.S. news media; by 2004, that number had shrunk to five (Ben Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly).

In 2003, when Michael Powell, Martin's predecessor as chair of the FCC, attempted to stifle public input on his "reforms" to encourage more media consolidation by relaxing restrictions on how much of a local news market can be controlled by one corporation, a great public outcry arose. In particular, citizens understood the "one size fits all" model of news programming from a distant source to be a fantasy sown by those who seek profit at the expense of local communities, which depend on local information and competing views if they are to retain a claim on democracy.

The son of Colin Powell had to be shamed into holding additional hearings around the country, where taxpayers in record numbers voiced their support for more, not less, locally-produced media content. Powell, Martin (then a general member), and the third Republican on the five-member FCC rammed their reforms through anyway, but a federal court overturned the deal, in a real-life victory by, and for, the public.

The five-member Federal Communications Commission today remains a Republican-controlled agency, and the mission of Kevin Martin, whose bespectacled, boyish looks belie his years at Wiley Rein & Fielding, "Rated Top Telecommunications Lobbyists" according to an article on their website, is well known: to succeed where Michael Powell failed. And so, the scandal of the buried study (with others now coming to light) which showed locally-produced television news delivers substantially more local information than the big corporate model, really comes as no surprise. Just another scandal from page four.

Unless you take the attitude that democracy, unlike an oligarchy, plutocracy, dictatorship, or any other arrangement of government, depends on an informed public, and that therefore this subject belongs at the head of our considerations. In the words of media scholar Robert McChesney, "Core research that undermines the argument for relaxing media ownership rules has been suppressed by the agency that is legally obligated to serve the public interest." You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to make an accurate deduction about who stands to gain through the non-coverage of this story of public betrayal.

In the United States, corporations are used to throwing off restrictions placed to protect the interests of real people, such as laws banning one corporation from owning another, or those outlawing corporate lobbying and campaign contributions. The existence of such illegitimate corporate "rights" is why we must fight the fight of 2003 again so soon. Please visit, the diverse coalition now gearing up to carry the battle. AND . . .

. . . Explore the history of the corporate hijacking of America's information sources, including the airwaves that technically and legally belong to us all. You can get started at
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Dave Wheelock is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and a professional university rugby coach in Socorro, New Mexico. He holds a history degree from the University of New Mexico. His Pencil Warrior column appears in the Socorro Mountain Mail (more...)
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