Bagdikian Warns Against Further Concentration of Media Ownership

My name is Ben Bagdikian. I have been a reporter and editor of newspapers, written books on the media, and am former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.

 

Commissioner Adelstein, thank you for the opportunity to speak at this hearing.Since the broadcast frequencies are the property of the American public, it is fitting that a member of the Federal Communications Commission, a steward of this public property, gives us, the owner-citizens of the Bay Area, an opportunity to be heard.

 

I would like to make three points that I believe are significant in the stewardship of our air waves.

 

$300 billion earned from public property

 

1. This is a fabulously valuable public property. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, the revenues of broadcasters and the associate telecommunications firms represent more than $300 billion a year.  The channels through which this $300 billion industry makes its money are the property of the American public.  It is the opinion of many citizens, myself included, that this fabulous public resource that we own entitles us to have an effective voice on how our property is used. At the very least, the commercial users of our property ought to be required to give the people access to their programming in the communities being served.  But, year by year, this local access has diminished until in too many markets it is now close to zero.

 

Giving public property worth more than $300 billion dollars to private corporations for their own profitable use is, in my opinion, an expropriation of a magnitude that reminds one of the Tea Pot Dome scandal.

 

I think it is notable that large media conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner, the largest media firm in the world, and ClearChannel, the largest radio group in the country, are said to “own” a certain number of stations. Legally, of course, they do not own the licenses for these stations.  In a real sense, their licenses are rented to them for a specific  period by us, the public. According to the law, they are rented to them on condition that  operate, to quote the law,  “in the public interest.” 

 

“local” stations with no local employees

 

I suspect that few people who follow such things need to be reminded that the largest radio group in the country, ClearChannel,  has more than 1200 stations and has only 200 employees. They have 10 stations in the general San Francisco Bay Area. How can any company operate in the public interest when it operates 1200 local radio stations with only 200 employees?  Even in this period of genetic engineering, there is no way a radio station can be actively and locally run by one sixth of a human being.  But, of course, the reason ClearChannel needs so few employees is that most of its stations have no human beings in them, most of the time. The stations are operated remotely with canned programming.

 

As you know, recently in Minot, North Dakota, a train wreck released anhydrous ammonia gas that killed one person, sent 300 people to the hospital and blinded others.  The local police could not use the most effective local warning system to tell the public to get indoors at once and close windows and doors against a deadly gas. The best  local system to issue this emergency warning were the six stations that ClearChannel operates in the city of Minot. But the ClearChannel studios, though broadcasting during all this time, were empty and locked. They were operating with canned programming by remote control. Is there nothing the FCC can do to end this mockery of the law?  Do these stations operate in the public interest of their communities?   

 

Furthermore, this company had six stations in a city with a population of 37,000. Why should a city of 37,000 people have the same owner for six stations?  Six stations with no human beings in them and using programming that had absolutely nothing to do with Minot, North Dakota?  This seems to be greed raised to the 6th power.

 

This kind of concentrated control by broadcasters is permitted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act which, in my opinion, was the most disastrous broadcasting legislation in our history. It effectively robbed people of their own air waves. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 1994 Gingrich Republican caucus called in top broadcast executives, asked them what they wanted, and gave them the 1996 Act. It did so in the name of keeping up with new technology, a technology that permitted ClearChannel to dehumanize six radio stations in Minot, North Dakota.

 

I cite Minot, North Dakota as a dramatic case because, as in medical epidemics, a dramatic case demonstrates more clearly the systemic failures, in this case the systematic negligence of the public interest throughout the country.  But ClearChannel is not alone.

 

news from nowhere

 

Some time ago, I was interviewed on a major network with studios in San Francisco.  Before we went on the air for the interview, the host asked me not to mention where we were, not to mention the date, not to mention the day of the week, and not to mention the weather.  He explained that this program is used in the network’s other cities all over the country and, as he put it, “We like people in all those cities to think they’re listening to a local program.” ClearChannel is not the only network that misuses the word “local.”

 

I believe that even under the disastrous 1996 Act, the FCC still has the responsibility to intervene when license holders so egregiously ignore the public interest. That phrase, to operate “in the public interest” is still in the 1996 Act.   Yet, it has turned most of our radio talk shows into a right-wing propaganda machine.

 

local perspective is vital because power is local

 

My second point is that we are speaking here about something close to the heart of sustaining our democracy. It is too often overlooked that it is uniquely necessary for the United States public to have routine access to the broadcast stations in their own community. We are unique because the United States is the only developed democracy in the world that leaves so many central functions of government to each locality. Each of our cities operates its own schools, its own police, its own land use, most of its taxes, functions that in other countries are the responsibility of a centralized national agency. No purely national programming can possibly report on these for us. Why else would almost all our broadcast licenses require the licensee to maintain a station in its city of operation?

 

           Yet we are close to imitating other countries who have all their significant broadcasts originate in their capital or central city and then sent out to the whole country by mechanical translator towers. In those countries, every community gets the same programming.  The United States is almost alone in requiring a broadcast license holder to operate a studio in each city and for a valid, fundamental reason.  But by now that requirement has become close to meaningless for most chain broadcasters. 

 

That is why it seems contrary to the national welfare that most of our major local broadcast outlets, not just ClearChannel, send out programming that could just as well originate in Enid, Oklahoma.  

 

local civic discussion necessary

 

We need more civic discussion in our local stations, and I don’t mean bad jokes about local matters by shock jocks and disc jockeys.  And not at midnight. The public interest requires more broadcast sessions that permit rational discussion and audience participation.  We in the Bay Area have KQED’s Michael Krasney, who hosts an excellent issue discussion program. We have the Pacifica station, KPFA, which has progressive news and programming, a political orientation that is constantly criticized by many of the same organizations that are happy that almost all the national talk shows are from the political far right, as with Rush Limbaugh (who, as you know, is syndicated by Clear Channel).   But ClearChannel alone has ten stations in our market.

 

 Today, all over the country our cities and states are facing financial crises in budgets for schools, for other city services, and for all the duties that come from our system of local governance. We are the richest country in the world, but we are now shrinking our school curricula, reducing our civic services, and at the same time demanding that our schoolchildren improve their performance. 

 

Our form of democracy needs routine information throughout the year on issues we all face every Election Day.  The country has a unique need for local civic discussion on the air. It is a unique requirement needed  to maintain our unique form of democracy.

 

a diverse nation requires diverse media

 

My third point is that FCC policy in the last 30 years has permitted five large media conglomerates to own the media on which the majority of Americans say they depend for their news, information, and entertainment.  Each of these giant conglomerates has major holdings in all our major media — newspapers, magazines, books, cable, radio, television, and motion pictures.

 

We are a nation of 280 million people in 19,000 cities and towns stretched across a great continent.  Our population is a world model of diversity of ethnicity, race, and countries of national origin. We have clear differences in our geographic regions and their differing regional cultures and needs. 

 

We now suffer an unnecessary disconnect between the needs of our unique local governments and the diverse nature of our population on one hand, and on the other hand, the lack of this diversity in our broadcasting system.  In recent years, that gap has widened even more rapidly and has been propagandized so consistently by the broadcasting industry, that there are now men and women in powerful government and industrial positions who question the need to regulate broadcasting at all. 

 

cookie-cutter programming designed to maximize profit

 

 The problem is intensified by the high degree to which both radio and television stations duplicate each other, even though they are held by supposedly competing corporations.  If one network and its affiliates find a more profitable program formula, the others rush to imitate it.  Furthermore, they have so many joint ventures with each other that they have all the characteristics of a cartel.

 

In their imitative programming, a very large amount of what the public hears on political social matters is politically right-wing of the most crudely aggressive kind. This is not what the public needs or wants.  It is in stark contrast to what the most serious polls show is the self-identified politics of the American population.   And since cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, individuals and organizations attacked by the talk shows have no right of reply.

 

more channels does not equal greater variety

 

Let me state what I think is a fallacy repeated endlessly to justify deregulation of broadcasting. It is constantly repeated that there are so many new channels we no longer need to regulate them. There are many new channels. What are these new channels? They are mainly cable and satellite broadcasting channels.  But these new channels do not operate as separate corporate entities. Even a working paper commissioned by the FCC noted that there are many new channels but the number of owners remains stagnant. The arithmetic is inescapable.  More channels and the same number of owners means that the new channels simply increase the power and control of the existing oligopoly that controls most United States broadcasting.  The owners of our new cable channels, for example, are AT&T, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, General Electric NBC subsidiaries, Disney Company, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The repeated assertion of new channels includes satellite broadcasting which is now dominated by Murdoch’s recent purchase of  DirecTV, and EchoStar that owns six satellites with 500 channels of video, audio, and data.

 

We speak here of a handful of global corporations that control everything that a majority of Americans say they use to get their news, information and entertainment. And this handful of giant corporations so imitate each other chasing after ratings, and share ownership in so many joint ventures that our thousands of broadcast outlets is meaningless if we have a goal of meeting the needs of our diverse American population. 

 

too much power in too few hands

 

The new channels, by increasing the media power of existing companies, introduce a threat to the kind of democracy we deserve. We know all too well that media power means political power in Washington.  So not only does the American media audience suffer, but so do all American voters: they are deprived of diverse politics on the air, added to the further dilution of their votes by corporate power lobbies and financial contributions in Washington.  

 

What James Madison said more than 200 years ago is still true, that a popular government without popular information is a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.  That is why I think the FCC is one of the most crucial agencies in maintaining the health of our democracy.

 

In closing, we are grateful that you recognize this responsibility by your presence here today. Thank you.

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