Outside the headquarters of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, D.C., a group of 200 people gathered on Wednesday morning, in an effort to bring public awareness and persuade the FCC to change its direction on media ownership. The rally, sponsored by Free Press, Inc., a non-profit that works to limit media consolidation, was held in conjunction with a public hearing – announced by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin just five days ahead of the hearing date -- on how media consolidation affects local markets. Free Press organizing materials suggested that the short notice was an attempt to lock the public out of the debate.
The Washington Post described the media ownership issue this way:
FCC rules govern how many radio and television stations a company can own in a city and how many radio stations a company can own nationally. They also prevent one company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, a rule likely to be lifted during the current review.The rally featured many prominent speakers, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Melanie Campbell, president of the National Project on Black Civic Participation, NAACP Director Hilary Shelton, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus, Rosa Clemente of REACH Hip-Hop and many others. They came together to speak about the possible negative results from the pending changes in FCC rules that would grant giant media corporations a much larger foothold in such local media markets as Washington, D.C.’s. Speakers argued that by indirectly forcing local Washington media outlets to close, the diversity reflected in local coverage – especially representation of people of color and women in local media – would likely be destroyed.
Ownership = content
A common argument in each speech was that whoever owns the media controls the content of media. Women own only 5 percent of television and 6 percent of radio, while minorities own 3 percent of television and less than 8 percent of radio. With their numbers so low in the seats of real power, it’s easy to see why members of these constituencies find perspectives not being presented in corporate-controlled media.
No matter the race or gender of its originator, the same narrative gets retold in media outlets nationwide when only a few hold the reins of media power; new ideas and alternative views do not get heard. This is important because if only one view is presented then the people will not hear the complete story. How well does a person make a decision when he or she does not know all of the facts?
One of the major problems with big corporations controlling nearly all major media is that they are more focused on ratings and money, rather than the story. Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out that the Jena 6 story was originally ignored by the media. The only way the rest of the country learned of it was from local papers, blogging, and YouTube. Only then did the mass media pay attention to the news. As many of the speakers agreed, no social issue can be solved if the message doesn’t get out.
My Hip-Hop isn't your Hip-Hop
While many speakers focused on broadcast news, Rosa Clemente, a Hip-Hop activist spoke about the record industry. Definitely one of the more powerful speakers, Clemente pointed out that Hip-Hop is the culture of oppressed African- and Latin-Americans. However, the Hip-Hop she speaks of is not what is being played on the radio waves. This music does not mention social issues that are affecting the culture it represents, she asserted, partly because of the decisions made by record executives. It is a "fifty-plus-year-old white man" who controls the current Hip-Hop industry and creates the negative images of women and minorities, Clemente asserted. "The same white man," Clemente pointed out, "that in a meeting four weeks later said to us, 'I don’t let my kids listen to that music,' and we said to him, 'but it’s okay for you to be a multi-millionaire in Indiana and let my child listen to it?'"
The organizations taking part in the rally also included the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the United Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Church of Christ, Communication Workers of America, Consumers Union, Prometheus Radio Project, USPIRG, National Congress of Black Women, League of United Latin American Citizens, Women’s Media Center, Alliance for Community Media and Common Cause. The women of Code Pink were there, as well. They sang a parody about Rupert Murdoch and big media to the tune of "There’s No Business Like Show Business."
Interestingly enough, in my Understanding Mass Media class, I just finished a group project about media ownership. Each group had a magazine that they had to research in order to find the corporations that owned it. Presentation after presentation students noticed that it was the same companies who controlled the magazine industry, as well as television and radio. Common names were Disney/ABC, Hearst Corporation, News Corporation, and NBC/GE. It was easy to see how there was a lack of original news because it was all being recycled.
Debating what we already know
While my class has now been convinced that the media is run by a select few, the debate still went on inside the FCC building. The hearing did feature a panel of speakers, most of whom favor local ownership of individual television and radio stations. Each speaker was allowed five minutes to speak. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of Media Access Project, pointed out that 2,000 radio stations receive broadcasts from Viacom. "What’s the diversity in that?"
Rev. Jesse Jackson stated that although D.C. is a very racially and ethnically diverse city, there is not a single station that is minority-owned. Furthermore, he stated that Don Imus was on the air in more media outlets than the combined numbers of all radio hosts who are minorities and women. Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the Parents Television Council, gave an example of how big corporations ignore rules and regulations set by the FCC. He said that CBS allowed profanity to be aired during the day, claiming they thought their contract dealt only with live broadcasts, when CBS executives should have known the exact terms of their contract since the network’s lawyer had negotiated it with the FCC.
Although some may not think that we have to worry about our media being completely run by a few major corporations, or even by one or two people, I think that it is something that should be taken seriously. The media is very influential and powerful. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood said, in war the army destroys the media first. If only a few are controlling the media it is very possible that it could affect others’ viewpoints and how the country is run. In order for a democracy to be effective it needs all of the people’s voices to be heard.
The writer is an intern with American Forum and a student at American University.