12.20.2002 12:00 PM
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
FCC asks wrong questions in media ownership studies, consumer groups charge

FCC studies supporting Chairman Michael Powell’s campaign to change broadcast ownership rules to allow more media mergers and acquisitions asked the wrong questions, says a coalition of consumer groups.

The Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy and Media Access Project has released a 210-page legal and economic analysis of the increasing problem of concentration in mass media markets. Titled “Democratic Discourse in the Digital Information Age,” the report demonstrates that the media studies recently published by the FCC are asking the wrong questions because:

  • The study looks at a variety of entertainment when it should be looking at diversity of information

  • The study worries about a number of outlets when strength of journalistic institutions is what matters

  • The study downplays the key role of concentration of ownership

  • The study ignores the size and diversity of the population served by the media

“Chairman Powell defines his job as promoting variety in the entertainment market,” said Mark Cooper, CFA's director of research, “but the First Amendment is about ensuring vibrant civic discourse through diversity of viewpoints and vigorous competition between institutions in the gathering and dissemination of news and information.”

The report “establishes a firm evidentiary basis for preserving the current rules that set limits on the number and type of media outlets any single entity can own in any local market and across the nation,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy for Consumers Union.

“The stakes for the nation are huge,” said Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “The mass media are the primary means through which citizens gather news and information and ultimately express their opinions.”

Analyzing several previous instances in which ownership limits were relaxed, the study concludes that the industry behaves according to a simple principle: “If you let them, they will merge.”

The report predicts that repeal or significant modification of media ownership rules will open the floodgates to mergers and acquisitions that will reduce competition and diversity in the media. Predictions are that TV and daily newspapers in every local market will become highly concentrated, with fewer than four owners per market; the national total of owners of TV stations and daily newspapers will shrink to as few as 300; and most newspapers would be integrated TV stations and lose their independent ability to criticize the electronic media.

“Convergence of communications and mass media in digital networks increases the power of the media and the threat that concentrated control of the media in the hands of a few corporations will destroy the people’s First Amendment free speech rights,” Chester pointed out.

An executive summary of the report is available at: www.consumerfed.org/demodiscoursesum.pdf.

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