Le Monde diplomatique, avril 2004, p. 19 - 2004/04
“Do some media agencies pose a threat to world peace?” Eric Klinenberg, professor at New York University and author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, (University of Chicago Press, 2002) discussed the issue. “The campaign between Mr. George W. Bush and Mr. John Kerry is sure to raise the issue of manipulation of information, as well as capitalist concentration in the media.” He noted that the media came under increasing fire in 2003. John Nichols, leader of the fast-growing movement for media reform Free Press, is challenging the way the U.S. media works. Bernie Sanders, who represents Vermont in the House of Representatives, explained that “for the first time in U.S. history, corporate control over the media is a political issue.” Another member of Congress, Maurice Hinchey added that media reform “is the most critical issue currently facing the American people. It’s about controlling the debate, and the foundations of democracy are at stake.” But the author asks, “What could motivate real media reform in a nation where 10 enormous corporations dominate the news business? What might a movement accomplish?”
Klinenberg pointed to two seminal events that raised awareness among Americans and spurred them to action: the uncritical news coverage of the war in Iraq and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to further deregulate the media. On June 2, 2003, the industry regulatory authority “made a decision to allow large media conglomerates to further expand their share of the market” by permitting newspapers and television stations in the same city to have the same owners and allowing broadcasters to pick up more local and national networks. Two million Americans wrote to the Commission to oppose the planned deregulation. For Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), it was clear that “the FCC was in the grips of the private sector.” According to Mr. Adelstein, one of five FCC commissioners, it was “the most sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protection rules in the history of American broadcasting.” Representative Tami Baldwin complained, “As a member of the U.S. Congress, I often have to turn to the foreign press to get deep and reliable information.”
To illustrate his point, the author noted that the Telecommunications Act signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 deregulated the radio market to such an extent that the number of station owners dropped by 34% in seven years. Today, Clear Channel alone operates over 1,200 stations, including the six in Minot. In some cities, a single company operates all local stations, and residents have a hard time finding anything of interest to listen to. Television is similarly endangered. Adelstein says, “today 14% of programming on local television stations is paid infomercials,” or advertisements disguised as news. However, Senator Lott noted that Americans are interested in TV, radio, and print, and they are worried about the lack of quality and diversity. Bernie Sanders observed, for example, that political meetings about the media attract more members of the public than any other subject. As the author stressed, current campaigns to transform the media are focused on Iraq and the FCC, but their objective is not just to repeal the laws passed in 2003: “Rolling back what the FCC did is not enough,” asserts John Nichols. “We would still be faced with an illegal war and a partisan media.” Free Press director and academic Robert McChesney insisted on the urgency of challenging media monopolies and reorganizing the sector to transform the field into a more democratic public sphere. The next step will be to win more generous government funding for public broadcasting and community media.
To conclude, Klinenberg maintains that “the amount of protest against the FCC last year is encouraging. The Free Press, national organizations like FAIR, Media Access, and Media Channel, and the hundreds of local activist groups now forming recognize that many obstacles lay before them. But their leaders have been galvanized by the events of the past year, and they are ready for a long battle.” (Available in French)