The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently accepting public input on a set of proposed media ownership rule changes that would allow for increased corporate ownership of media outlets. According to the Stop Big Media coalition, a group organizing to stop the rule changes, the changes would exclusively benefit large media corporations while harming local communities by stifling viewpoints, limiting diversity, and failing to cover local issues. Five media corporations—Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, and NBC/General Electric control most of the media consumed by people in the United States. These five corporations own the four major broadcast networks and most cable channels, while also owning a significant number of radio stations, publishers, internet sites, record labels and venues, and movie studios, yet the proposed rule changes would allow media corporations to control even more media outlets.
The rule changes are contained in a June 21, 2006 draft proposal by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. While the text is fairly vague, Martin (at the behest of large media corporations) are pushing for the rule changes, as they would eliminate two rules that are particularly hated by media corporations. The two rules, one that prevents companies from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast television station in a single market and another that prevents corporations from owning more than one television in a major market, are just two of the proposed rule changes. These two rules alone would allow a media corporation to own a market’s major newspaper, three television stations, and eight radio stations, thereby controlling much of the flow of information in a given area. The FCC has also proposed eliminating current rules limiting the cross ownership of radio and television stations, with corporations currently being limited to owning two television stations and six radio stations in markets where there are at least 20 independent outlets. The FCC is proposing to eliminate these rules entirely. The FCC is also looking at the possibility of adjusting radio ownership rules, where companies are currently allowed to own a maximum of eight stations in a market provided that there are a total of forty-five stations in a market, the FCC may adjust the counting methods to allow NPR stations to count towards this total, thereby allowing corporations to own more stations by redefining small markets as large markets.
However, while the consolidation of media ownership has increased the profits of the large corporations that control the media, it has had a detrimental effect on the quality of local media. Media consolidation has limited independent information, with two-thirds of independently owned newspapers and one-third of independently owned television stations disappearing since 1975. Since 1996, corporate radio ownership has increased by 34% with the largest corporation—Clear Channel—owning more than 1,200 stations. Minority ownership, a critical source of diverse viewpoints, is down 14% since 1997 while only 1.9% of television stations on minority-owned. Like the national statistics, ownership of media outlets in Grand Rapids is held by a number of large corporations and views are similarly limited. The Grand Rapids Press is owned by Advance Publications, a company owning a variety of newspapers and magazines published across the United States. The local broadcast network television stations are owned by Gannett, Tribune Company, and Lin TV, while the cable system is owned by the media giant Comcast. In radio, ownership is even more consolidated with Clear Channel Communications owning nine stations, Regent owning five, and Citadel Broadcasting owning four. As anyone who has attempted to find quality local content in the newspaper, on the television, or on the radio in Grand Rapids can attest, it is nearly impossible to find a broad selection of voices and views in the local media.
In 2003, the FCC tried to push through similar rule changes in 2003, with the FCC voting 3 to 2 along party lines to lift broadcast and newspaper cross-ownership restrictions, loosen limits on local broadcast ownership, and to permit one company to own stations reaching 45% of the national audience. However, the changes, enacted with little public input, were met by widespread opposition from media activists and media reform organizations that organized their members to speak out against the changes. According to the Stop Big Media coalition, in which many opponents of the 2003 rule changes have become active, 3 million people contacted the FCC and Congress to oppose the rule changes. In response, the Senate voted to overturn the rule changes and Congress reached a compromise limiting the number of stations that one company could own to 39% of the national audience. In 2004, a Supreme Court ruling in the Prometheus Radio Project vs. the FCC case overturned the remainder of the proposed rule changes, opposing the cross-ownership of broadcast television stations and newspapers in the same market, charged that the FCC used faulty methodology in justifying the rule changes, and asserted that the FCC needs to prove the need for ownership restrictions to be removed otherwise the ownership limits should remain.
The 2003 victory against media rule changes was a major victory for media activists and the campaign against the current set of rule changes could be another victory due to significant organizing on the part of the Stop Big Media coalition. The coalition has united a diverse array of groups—many of whom were involved in the 2003 victory—to oppose the rule changes. Aside from media organizations such as Free Press, the Center for Media and Democracy, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and the Prometheus Radio Project, the coalition also has attracted entities such as the AFL-CIO (Department for Professional Employees), the National Council of Churches, Public Citizen, and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition among others. Aside from a highly informative website on the issue, the Stop Big Media coalition has produced short videos on the subject, attended both official FCC hearings and organized hearings on media consolidation, and created a series of online email actions designed to facilitate the process of making a public comment on the rules before the FCC’s December 21 deadline. The coalition is urging people to file public comments telling the FCC to protect localism, promote minority voices, and to stop burying studies showing that media consolidation is harmful. The coalition is also calling on people to send letters to their local newspapers as another way of educating people about the rule changes.