War coverage could alter U.S. media policy
Reporting may influence debate about ownership; More consolidation coming?; FCC to decide soon on any rules changes By Andrew Ratner
Originally published March 30, 2003
News coverage of the war in Iraq, unprecedented in its frequency and immediacy, may influence something long after the war concludes: Who gets to own the media that provide the news?
The Federal Communications Commission has been ordered by Congress and the U.S. Court of Appeals to re-examine its rules on media concentration. It plans to decide on any changes perhaps by June.
The commission roughly set that timing last year. Its convergence with the U.S.-led attack on the regime of Saddam Hussein is purely coincidental. But the coverage from Iraq is apt to loom large in the debate, with one side arguing that it proves the boundless diversity of information in the Internet age and the other claiming that American media have been rendered timid by the creeping consolidation in the industry.
Current restrictions forbid a company from owning in a single city two of the top television stations or a TV station and large daily newspaper, or from owning stations across the country that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.
If the FCC is inclined to allow a greater concentration of media - and many observers believe it is - the war coverage might provide added weight, and political cover, for that view.
There might be some irony in the fact that a patchwork of rules that began in 1941 out of fears of the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe would be argued to be proven irrelevant because of 21st-century coverage of the overthrow of a totalitarian regime in the Middle East.
Advocates of increased deregulation of TV and print media, including FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, have long argued that the Internet and cable outlets have vastly altered how the public receives information.
The recent war coverage proves that point, they say - with round-the-clock reports on television and the Internet from journalists "embedded" with soldiers on the battlefront as well as Web sources as varied as the British Broadcasting Corp. and Arab television station Al-Jazeera.
Just this past Thursday, Powell told the Media Institute, a nonprofit First Amendment watchdog group, that he found it "thrilling to see the power of the media and its reach, and shocking to see war brought so close." The Iraq invasion exemplifies the need to allow media companies to expand to have the resources and efficiencies to cover global events, he said.
James L. Gattuso, a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, recently wrote in a newsletter for the Competitive Enterprise Institute: "The debate will be filled with endless factoids and pleadings. But ... when the commissioners finally sit down to assess the media marketplace, they will remember these days in March, and the cornucopia of information and perspectives that the market provided."
Viacom Corp., which owns CBS, Paramount Pictures, MTV and Black Entertainment Television; Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.; and Chicago-based Tribune Co., whose three dozen TV, radio stations and newspapers include The Sun, are among the conglomerates lobbying to change the rules.
They are opposed by an assortment of public interest groups, organized labor, movie stars and screenwriters who fear condensed power in Hollywood and other media companies that don't own multiple stations or intend cross-ownership of TV and newspapers.
The opponents argue that news outlets in fewer hands threatens the public's ability to know about news, especially on local issues.
The argument isn't new. The Supreme Court upheld the diversity model in 1943, arguing that the Associated Press couldn't discriminate in providing its wire service to local news outlets. But the question was reopened in 1996 when Congress required the FCC to justify its rules every two years.
Coverage of the Iraq war may not change the thinking of those most involved in the issue, especially because billions of dollars in broadcast revenue weigh in the balance. But the war reporting is something very tangible for a subject that often seems so esoteric that most Americans remain unaware an argument is being waged vigorously on their behalf.
Lawmakers, media executives and others who have argued that the protections against media concentration have become outmoded by technology couldn't have penned a better script than the digicammed, cell-phoned, cyber-coverage in Iraq, some say. "I almost felt bad about myself when I went to the Drudge Report for news," said Philip Napoli, a media professor at Fordham University in New York, who nevertheless marveled that he was able to access the Web site of muckraking reporter Matt Drudge when he tired of watching the cable news outlet CNN.
"It's one more case history that illustrates the fact that we live in a new media marketplace," said R. Clark Wadlow, a Washington attorney whose clients include Tribune Co., which is pursuing a policy of owning television and newspaper outlets in several major markets. "It certainly illustrates the point that everyone has a wide array of choices whether they live in New York or Martha, Texas."
Unlike what happened in an FCC vote on telephone deregulation last winter, when the interests of the influential regional Bell companies became mired in a political split on the commission, the media vote figures to split along party lines and favor the industry powers.
Commissioner Kevin J. Martin isn't expected to split with his fellow Republicans, Kathleen Q. Abernathy and Powell, as he did on the telephone vote.
Henry Geller, a former FCC counsel who wrote some of the media ownership rules and favors their continuation, said he isn't optimistic that will happen given the agreement between the Republican commissioners and corporate interests.
"The other vote was this huge powerful struggle between various elements of telecom. All you have on the other side of this debate are a bunch of consumer groups. It's like saying, 'How many divisions does the pope have?'" he said. "September 11th didn't repeal the First Amendment, but it tended to strengthen the Republicans who believed in getting rid of the regulations all along."
Many of those who support the current rules, however, believe their argument has been girded, not undercut, by the war coverage.
MoveOn, a large anti-war group that coalesced over the Internet after the Sept. 11 attacks, has criticized the American media for, in its view, not sufficiently showing the carnage and civilian casualties in Iraq.
"Embedded? or In Bed?" read a sign at a war protest Thursday at New York's Rockefeller Center, home of NBC-TV and the Associated Press.
"What's so interesting is the stark comparison of coverage from elsewhere and the U.S. TV networks, especially since the networks have their hand out right now for the Bush administration to grant them this change," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group in Washington.
"Just because the Internet exists does not mean we should have to go outside our borders to get serious in-depth news coverage," Chester said. "We only have a half-dozen broadcast companies left standing and that's why we're getting cookie-cutter coverage - all former generals all the time. We need a new policy with many voices and channels while we're moving in the other direction."
Critics point to radio-giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. as a cautionary example of media might in wartime.
The San Antonio, Texas, company, owned by a former business associate of President Bush, has sponsored several rallies in support of American troops, while a single correspondent "embedded" with the Marines provides news from Iraq for the company's 1,250 stations. (Clear Channel also owns 37 television stations and more than 775,000 billboards and is the largest producer of concerts in the world.)
A New York Times columnist conjectured that a corporate radio conglomerate would be unlikely to "rock the boat" by airing the kind of anti-war music that emboldened opposition to the Vietnam War.
Clear Channel stations in Baltimore are WPOC-FM, WCAO-AM and WXFB-FM; in Frederick, WFMD-AM and WFRE-FM; and in Ocean City, WLVW-FM, WQHQ-FM, WTGM-AM, WSBY-FM, WJDY-AM, WWFG-FM, WLBW-FM and WOSC-FM.
A station in Shreveport, La., KRMD - although not owned by Clear Channel - recently banned airtime for songs by the Dixie Chicks after the lead singer of the Grammy-winning country music trio told an audience in London that she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."
At a "Chicks Bash," the station invited listeners to toss Dixie Chicks recordings and memorabilia beneath a steamroller.
The tentacles of war, already reaching into the economy and international diplomacy, may wrap around media policy yet.
Bruce M. Owen, an economist at Stanford University and formerly at the Justice Department who has consulted for the FCC, said: "I think this could have a heavy impact on showing that regulation is no longer necessary."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun