Telecom regulation and censorship [cr-95/9/5]


[The following was written by Wally Bowen of Citizens for Media Literacy
in Asheville, N.C.  Copyright 1995.  Cross-posting permitted.]

The spate of media mergers are being announced in anticipation of
passage of The Telecommunications Deregulation and Competition Act of
1995.  This legislation is the first re-writing of our communications
laws since the Communications Act of 1934.

This is the worst federal law I've seen in my lifetime.  The most glaring
aspect is the repeal of the cross-ownership ban.  This will allow a single
company to own virtually all the major media in a single community:  the daily
newspaper, TV and radio stations, phone and cable TV systems.

This won't happen overnight, of course.  But this legislation -- which has
passed both houses of Congress, and which President Clinton has threatened to
veto -- sets forth a blueprint for such concentration of media ownership.

The legislation's "deregulation and competition" label is a howling misnomer.
The proposed laws do knock down barriers to competition between cable TV and
phone companies, and between local phone and long distance services.  That's
good.  But there's a huge loophole:  there are no safeguards against collusion,
collaboration and merger.

Instead of "Let's compete," the proposed law invites "Let's make a deal."
Companies don't need to need to go the expense of building collateral phone or
cable systems when they can simply make deals to swap systems  in order to
expand their control over a particular community or region.  Outside of the
long distance business, the only real "competition" we will see is the current
jockeying for strategic alliances and mergers.

Recent history gives us some previews of coming events if the bill is signed
into law.  In 1983, when I came to the University of North Carolina at
Asheville as director of the news bureau, I could call a press conference and
expect a minimum of six journalists -- print and broadcast -- to show up.

But then two things happened:  the Reagan administration had the FCC  repeal
the Fairness Doctrine, which placed specific "public interest" service
requirements on broadcasters; and the spate of media mergers and hostile
takeovers occurred.

By the end of the decade, all but one of Asheville's commercial radio stations
had shut down their news operations.  Multimedia Corp, which owned the
Asheville Citizen (a.m.) and the Asheville Times (p.m.), had accumulated a
large debt after fending off a hostile takeover.  They closed the afternoon
paper, cut staff on the morning paper, and began to run more ads, more wire
copy, more info-tainment, and less local news.

In short, we have fewer working journalists in Asheville today, and those who
remain are increasingly assigned stories that are consumer-oriented and tied to
national marketing strategies.

For example, two or three years ago ABC broadcast a made-for-TV movie call
"Murder in the Heartland" about a 1950s serial killer in Kansas or thereabouts.
 Just before the broadcast, our local ABC affiliate ran a "news" story on a
serial killer here in Western North Carolina in the late 1970s.

The only reason for dredging up the old news story was the commercial
broadcast of the made-for-TV movie!  A friend of mine in the ABC affiliate's
promotions department later showed me the ABC network memo that encouraged
local news tie-ins to "Murder in the Heartland."

This is a small example of the oft-mentioned "synergistic" marketing
structures that are now being created on a global scale with mergers such as

As in the 1980s, these media mergers will create mounds of debt.  This debt
will result in staff reductions.  If the cross-ownership provision becomes law,
the media conglomerates will look for ways to cut costs without inhibiting
their quest for synergistic merchandising.  A sure-fire way to do that is to
cut and consolidate local staff while relying on market-tested, pre-packaged,
national info-tainment formulas.

ABC News and Diane Sawyer's scoop of the Michael Jackson interview tied into
the release of his album is another example of the synergistic approach to
news and info-tainment.

In the 1970s and 80s we saw the merging of morning and afternoon newspaper
staffs.  In the future, if the bill passes, we will see local newspapers merge
their news-gathering operations with the local radio and TV operations.  Less
localism, less diversity, less competition.

Another glimpse of the future is currently taking place in the world of cable
TV.  Tele-Communications Inc. and Liberty Media are controlled by John Malone.
Malone's media empire controls one-fourth of all U.S. cable connections in the
United States.  He is also part-owner of a lot of cable TV programming,
including a 21 percent stake in Turner Broadcasting.

In short, major producers of cable TV programming must sooner or later deal
with Malone.  Less known is Malone's right-wing political leanings.  An avowed
admirer of Rush Limbaugh, Malone has allowed conservative political channels --
such as GOP-TV, National Empowerment TV, and the Conservative Television
Network, -- easy access to his cable systems.

By contrast, Malone is stone-walling the 90s Channel, the nation's only cable
channel dedicated to progressive, liberal programming.  By charging exhorbitant
access fees and triggering expensive litigation, Malone appears to be trying to
force the 90s Channel out of business (see the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 31,

If this type of censorship is going on now before passage of the bill, imagine
the scale on which it can occur if the bill passes and the mega-mergers are
completed.  We've known for decades that independent, original voices --
especially if they're political, unpopular or dissident -- are more often than
not exiled to the media Siberia of small journals or public access TV (and now
the Internet).  This reality will be even more pronounced with the explosion of
shopping mall/amusement park choices and the growth of conservative

There are many other problems with this legislation:  opening the door to
renewed cable TV price gouging; extending broadcast license renewal from 5 to
10 years; weakening the role of state utilities commissions; marginalizing
rural Americans; excluding advanced telecommunications from the definition of
"universal service."

Perhaps the worst aspect of this legislation is what it doesn't do.  It could
have established a Public Telecommunications Trust to provide  public
broadcasting with a revenue stream independent of Congressional manipulation.
This fund could also help ensure access to advanced telecommunications for
rural Americans.

A one percent license transfer fee and/or income tax on these multi-billion
dollar companies could provide ample funding for the trust.  And it would at
long last inject some fairness and reciprocity into a privately held media
system built on free ownership of the public airwaves and technological
innovations -- such as broadcast, satellites, computers, fiber optics -- funded
in large part by taxpayer research dollars via NASA and the Pentagon.

President Clinton has pledged to veto this legislation, which Vice-President
Gore has described as "abhorrent to the public interest."  The problem is that
the public is being kept in the dark.  With the avalanche of media coverage of
the business and technology angles of this story (Disney/ABC, Windows 95,
etc.), public debate about the anti-democratic aspects of this historic
legislation has been nil.

Unless Clinton and Gore and the Democratic members of Congress (needed to
sustain a veto) hear from their constituents, Clinton could surrender to the
intense lobbying and campaign contribution pressure from an industry that
represents one-seventh of the Gross National Product.

The White House opinion line number is 202-456-1111.  If you would like to
know how the Democratic representatives in your state voted on this bill,
please contact me.  There's little chance of changing any Republican votes.

Wally Bowen, Citizens for Media Literacy, Asheville, N.C. <•••@••.•••>

 Posted by --  Andrew Oram  --  •••@••.••• --  Cambridge, Mass., USA
                 Moderator:  CYBER-RIGHTS (CPSR)

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