Information is power in every society. That's why the current
debate at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over media ownership rules
should concern us all. Under strong pressure from the broadcasting industry,
there is a move afoot at the FCC to enact rules allowing control of the media
to pass into fewer and fewer hands. It's high time for public outcry against
this democracy-busting move.
In a strong democracy, a variety of views must be available to citizens.
There are protections so that minority viewsóincluding religious onesócan be
heard. That was the vision of America's founders when they drafted the First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Supreme Court has upheld that view.
Since the dawn of mass communications in the 20th century, our government,
through the FCC, has jealously guarded publicly owned airwaves and has also
prevented monopolies from taking over local media markets. Today all of that
seems to be up for grabs.
Protecting the Common Good
The digital and deregulation revolutions are driving a once-well-regulated
industry back into the days of the Wild West, where the winner takes all. A
report from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) explains some recent history
that puts things into context.
Including the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there have been
a series of deregulations, after which "a merger wave ensued
and the number of owners declined sharply," the CFA says.
As the number of owners declines, we start seeing and hearing the
same types of shows everywhere. "Media owners have a tendency to impose their
preferences and biases on the media they control," the CFA points out, "so antagonism
in viewpoints is lost as the number of independent owners shrinks."
Another deadening effect is the demise of local programming and
programming that highlights cultural diversity, as well as a dearth of political
One area of ownership that could change under new rules is the ban
on media companies owning TV stations and newspapers in the same market. That
proposed change, the CFA says, "would have a devastating effect on media concentration.
Several hundred mergers would quickly take place, dramatically reducing the
number of major independent voices." The CFA predicts that up to 200 newspapers
would quickly merge with TV stations.
Another advocate trying to block the relaxation of the ownership
rules is the Washington, D.C.-based Media Access Project (MAP).
"Between 1995 and 1998," MAP says, "the number of radio owners declined
by just over 23 percent. In 1996 the largest radio owner, Westinghouse, held
85 stations, whereas in 2001 the largest owner, Clear Channel, owns 1,202 stations.
Experts predict individual companies owning between 4,000 and 5,000 stations
within a few years."
Religious Programming at Risk
How much religious programming do you see on the wide array
of broadcasting that comes into your home? How much programming that originates
from Catholic media groups? Not much, because it is almost impossible to get
religious programming into increasingly narrow media formats.
Ask any Catholic media outlet, including the U.S. bishops' Catholic
Communications Campaign. In January I attended as a consultant the meeting of
the committee overseeing this office. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
gathered comments of religious broadcasters and presented them to the FCC. (The
names of the dioceses and stations were withheld for fear of retaliation by
Here is testimony of what it's like for Church communicators to
get their programming on the air these days: "CBS recently put up for sale local
studios in another town from which we have broadcast a live TV Mass every Sunday
for 45 years. That station will become a clone of the [closest major city's]
station, with no more community service or local newscasts.
"The community is in mourning, and editorials in local papers have
questioned the FCC's lack of appropriate stewardship regarding the public's
And another: "The big change for us occurred...when the ABC station
informed us they would no longer broadcast our Sunday Mass, after 27 years on
the air.† After much discussion, the general manager could/would not even sell
us airtime for the Mass. It was the same story at the other stations as well;
no local times were available...."
A third: "One of the largest of the FM stations refused to sell
us air time [for 60-second advertisements supporting a program which assists
women who have had an abortion]. They claimed that because the word abortion
was used in the spot that it would be offensive."
Speak Up Now
Here are three ways to let your voice be heard on broadcast
1) Write to the Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th
St. SW, Washington, DC, 20554;
2) Call 888-CALL-FCC (225-5322);
3) Submit comments via the Internet at http://www.
fcc.gov/ownership/. At that Web site you can also
read the comments of others. Whichever way the FCC rules
this spring, it will be appealed.
In our democratic society, information should be power that serves
the common good.J.B.F.