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FCC's New Rules and the Common Good

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 viewpoints.

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 local broadcasters.)

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 airwaves...."

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 ownership rules:

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.


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