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FCC Policy is a Distaster for American Democracy
June 14, 2003
By Gerald Plessner

Americans should be grateful to Michael Powell for showing us the moral bankruptcy of Libertarianism. By taking its economic atheism to the extreme, Powell has demonstrated how its adherents believe that this radical philosophy is more important than the U.S. Constitution. We should reward Powell with demands for his resignation.

Michael Powell is the chair of the Federal Communication Commission who was appointed by President Clinton. Together with his two President Bush-appointed fellow commissioners, Powell recently  gave unbridled future control of America's radio and television air waves to nine or ten major corporations.

While the FCC was under orders to review regulatory control of radio and television, it was not directed to go as far as Powell, a staunch advocate of Libertarian deregulation, took it. Powell's leadership will soon result in an additional loss of the news and information citizens need to determine if their elected officials are serving them well and fairly.

In hammering through his new regulatory scheme Powell refused to hold public hearings prior to the vote on his proposals. After the two Democratic commissioners toured the country holding their own hearings, the FCC received 750,000 emails and phone calls denouncing the expected decision. Chairman Powell dismissed this overwhelming public dissent as irrelevant.

While his disdain for the public interest is offensive, his lack of respect for the nation's core values of a free and competitive press is truly frightening.

Here, in brief, is what the FCC decision does: 1.) Relaxes prohibitions on joint ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same market; 2.) Permits corporations to own stations reaching as much as 45% of the nation's viewers; 3.) Permits a corporation to own as many as three TV stations in the nation's nine largest cities including Los Angeles; 4.) Permits cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in mid-size cities; and 5.) Relaxes rules regarding local mergers of radio and TV stations.

All of this means that fewer companies will own more outlets as a feeding frenzy of purchases and mergers will inevitably follow the decision, which was strongly criticized by such varied organizations as the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women.  Many Senators and members of Congress are concerned about the decision, which they see as limiting their access to the public during elections and limiting information and entertainment in smaller cities.  The White House is supportive of the decision.

Most important, the decision will give uncontrolled power to major corporations to influence their news and opinion functions without competition in the gathering and dissemination of news and opinion.

There was a time when America's airwaves were thought to be the property of the American people.  The ownership of a radio or TV station was a privilege, not a right.  That privilege was earned by providing news, information and community service.

Today four companies own TV stations reaching 30% or more of America's households.  One company, Clear Channel Communications, owns more than 1,220 radio stations, about 10% of the nation's total.  A number of other companies own hundreds of outlets and many stations have no local employees or presence.  They are drones managed by remote, broadcasting music, news and commercials created in a central location, promoting songs they are paid to air and controlling news content to satisfy corporate goals.

Such was the case recently when Clear Channel Communications, whose chief executive is a long-time supporter of President Bush, banned the Dixie Chicks from its stations in retaliation for one of their member's comments about the president.

Drone stations are also not available to respond to community disasters such as potentially harmful chemical spills, traffic accidents or dangerous weather alerts.

Every single action by Powell previous to this raid on our right to an open and diverse press indicated that he would do just what he did.  The only surprising thing was Powell's hijacking of the democratic process and his disregard for the fundamentals of American democracy.  It took this arrogance to motivate the American public to tell their leaders to do something.

The lesson from this tragedy is even greater than its certain damage to public discourse and the unbridled media consolidation it will unleash.  Americans must understand that the Libertarian philosophy gripping our national politicians is a kind of economic atheism that is at its heart undemocratic.

While it may be very good for corporations and their shareholders, there is no industry in the modern world that has not seen consumer choice diminished by Libertarianism.  And the loss of choice is a loss of freedom.  It is time for our national leaders to step back from this consolidation and internationalization of all business.

Those who cry out against America's loss of sovereignty through the United Nations and other international entanglements should join in this effort to give citizens a renewed control of their own destiny.  Getting Congress to rescind the new FCC rules is the place to start.


Gerald Plessner writes regularly on issues of politics and culture.  He would be pleased to hear from you and may be contacted at gerald@geraldplessner.com.

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