Saturday, December 24, 2011

FCC plan to ease media ownership rules will further limit type of news and opinions that Americans get

By Marc Jampole

The Obama Administration is once again displaying its conservative feathers as proudly as any peacock might. The same group of pseudo-progressives who overruled distribution of Plan B birth control without an I.D. and executed an about-face to gut proposed higher pollution emission standards now plans to make another assault on freedom of speech.

Obama’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to overturn its longstanding rule that limits companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market.

This rule will surely lead to greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of fewer companies. The same thing happened after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 enabled companies to own more stations. Larger companies bought smaller ones and suddenly instead of hundreds of owners of TV and radio stations across the country, there were only dozens. We saw the impact on radio as Clear Channel and other companies owned by rightwingers gained control of the editorial policies of more and more stations. Pretty soon the range of opinion on radio narrowed and moved extremely right. While Rush Limbaugh began making a name for himself before 1996, it was the consolidation of media ownership that led to the domination of talk radio by Rush and his clones—Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, ad nauseum.

The FCC is arguing that it’s absurd not to let companies own both broadcast and print properties in one market since every TV and radio station is printing on the Internet and most newspapers run video on their websites. That argument doesn’t answer the objections to consolidation because the issue is not the distribution of news, but the sourcing of it. With fewer collective owners, there are fewer opinions and fewer definitions of what is newsworthy. With consolidation, the owners will tend to resemble each other even more than they do now, so that the articles and opinions will come to be similar across the various media.

Freedom of speech is useless unless there is a pulpit for every opinion. Each owner represents one possible pulpit for a variety of notions regarding our economy, political system, distribution of wealth, cultural ideas and belief systems, but each pulpit will be available to only one of each type—one set of views on the economy and politics, one idea about wealth distribution, one set of social priorities. We need many owners to ensure that we have many pulpits for every facet of economic, political and social interaction. Right now, a handful of companies already control most of the TV and radio stations, newspapers, movie studios and publishing houses in the country and around the world. The Internet does offer free access to the marketplace of ideas, but successful websites that are not affiliated with big companies draw in the hundreds of thousands, a drop in the bucket. The pulpit is there, but the tent is small compared to The Wall Street Journal or ABC-TV news.

The long suffering newspaper, as a recent Pew study showed, is the whole game, since newspapers originate 50% of all news, and a much higher percentage if we discount celebrity and local crime news and focus on political, economic, social trend and breaking news. As newspapers decline, they are covering less news and presenting fewer opinions, so less news and fewer opinions are getting out to people.

It may be that the FCC is thinking that revenues from TV will enable companies to keep the newspaper viable, something that seems less and less possible under current operating assumptions. But isn’t it just as likely that television advertising and programming departments could begin to dictate the terms of coverage in newspapers, leading to a rapid debasement of content.

If the Obama Administration and the FCC really want to help newspapers survive, a better approach might be to put a limit on the number of media properties one company can own. Make the large media conglomerates divest for the good of the country, like federal law and regulation once made oil conglomerates divest for the good of the country. The more companies there are controlling the media, the freer we will be as a people and as a society, and the less possible it will be for one group to steer the country in the wrong direction by controlling the news and opinion. Each of these smaller media companies after divestiture might be more fragile, but the industry itself would be stronger and more diverse.

Greater government support for the news operations of local public broadcasting stations would also help to create a freer marketplace of ideas.

Finally, government could subsidize newspapers that report original news and are making the transition to the Internet model, perhaps with a tax on Internet news aggregators such as Yahoo! and Google News that make so many stories of local and national newspapers available to the public free of charge.

I urge all readers to go to the FCC website and make a comment. Tell the Obama Administration that you do not want it to concentrate media ownership further. Instead, ask the Obama Administration to develop new laws and regulations that will break up the big media companies and diversify ownership.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In class war, House Republicans must think they’re the 300 Spartans dying politically so wealth inequality can survive

By Marc Jampole

House Republicans persist in stonewalling an agreement to extend and expand the temporary cut in Social Security and Medicare taxes (AKA payroll taxes). After holding the U.S. economy hostage time and again to maintain temporary tax cuts for the wealthy and paying for them by gutting programs for everyone else, the Republicans are now opposing a little more help for the other 99%.

This move should convince any doubters that there is a class war going on in the United States, and it’s being waged by the wealthy against the middle class and poor. The foot soldiers are conservative pundits and politicians, primarily Republicans. The House Republicans, led by the nose by its Tea Party wing, remind me of the small Greek army led by Spartans that held the Persian Army at the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, recently fictionalized as the movie 300.

The analogy to the Spartans, who sacrificed their lives for the greater cause (Sparta was a proto-fascist state), fits like a glove: The Republicans are taking heat for stonewalling the continuation of this tax cut. Virtually all reputable economists agree that consumers have spent almost all of the extra money in their pockets from the payroll tax cut. This temporary tax cut has thus served as a boost to the struggling economy. Take that boost away, and we will slip back into recession and the Republicans will be blamed. The House Republicans know that they’re putting their jobs and political lives on the line, but I imagine they are “just following orders:” like good soldiers always do.

The reluctance of Republicans in general to extend this tax cut unless we pay for it with cuts in benefits to other poor or middle class people demonstrates clearly that class war is the appropriate term to describe not only the current Republican agenda, but the agenda of conservatives for the past 30 years.

One of the most powerful tools of warfare has always been to cut off the enemy’s supply lines. Information and facts are perhaps the most vital supplies in this violent class war (unless you consider it nonviolent to cause deaths from inadequate medical care or children going to bed hungry). Speaker of the House John Boehner tried to cut that valuable resource the other day when he had someone from his office order C-SPAN to stop videotaping the live battle on the House Floor after he and other Republicans walked out of the chamber. At the time, Maryland Democratic Representative Stenny Hoyer was lambasting the House Republicans for walking away from their responsibility to the unemployed, the middle class, the poor and those on Medicare.

This obnoxious censorship demonstrates that the Republicans are willing to do anything to preserve and exacerbate the current inequality of wealth in this country.

The war analogy illuminates many conservative actions over the past three decades, and especially since the ascendancy of Bush II:

  • Pulling C-SPAN’s plug was a minor skirmish, but Republicans have been trying to reduce supplies of another precious resource—votes—for the past few years by proposing bills in virtually all states to make it harder both to register to vote and to vote.

  • Warfare often shows a complete disregard for innocent bystanders, and who can be more innocent than the millions of children who have seen funds cut for public schools, early childhood education and children’s healthcare?

  • Victors in war claim booty, and the booty in the case of the 30-year war against the middle class and poor is increased corporate profits from gutted regulations and government contracts that privatize traditional government services such as data processing, schools, prisons and military support services, replacing good-paying-rich government jobs with low-paying private sector jobs.

  • What else is the constant denigration of unions and unionized public workers than guerilla warfare? Taking pot shots at unions, impeding their ability to organize and feeding the public a steady stream of anti-union cant can all be compared to the attack-and-run strategies of guerilla warfare. And just as Viet Cong guerilla war divided the U.S. ruling elite and just as American guerilla war divided British ruling elite, so the right wing has managed to divide the middle class against itself with its constant sniping at unions.

We can only hope that the House Republican’s reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae has the same effect that the original battle did: Although the Greek army held off the Persians for a few days, the Persians overran much of Greece and captured Athens, that ancient democracy for rich white men. Let’s hope the Republicans lose both the battle and the war, although I wouldn’t compare America’s other 99% to the Persians. No, after 30 years of unmitigated class warfare, we’re more like shell-shocked victims of massive bombing.