National NOW Times >> Fall, 2001 >> Article
Will the Media Merger Free-For-All Extinguish Women’s
Bennett-Haigney, Communications Director
issues are often given short-shrift in the media, and it’s only
going to get worse.
Open up the paper or turn on the news on
any given day and chances are you’ll hear about one media company
swallowing up another. Business reporters love talking about these
high stakes, big money mergers, but they rarely ask what effect
media consolidation will have on consumers.
When reporters do
consider the impact, they often appear more vested in the concerns
of the corporations and how much money will be made or lost. And why
shouldn’t they be? Most newspapers in the U.S. are now owned by just
14 companies. Seven companies own most of broadcasting and cable
television and a mere four companies control 90 percent of radio.
Mainstream media are obviously reluctant to examine the negative
implications of their parent companies’ feeding frenzies.
“Information is power and with fewer and bigger
conglomerates controlling that information, we are losing valuable
voices and perspectives,” said NOW President Kim Gandy. “How will
women learn about issues important to them if the media chooses to
ignore those issues? Media democracy is crucial to the feminist and
civil rights movements.”
The Airwaves Belong to
When the government gave broadcasters free use of the
electromagnetic spectrum back in 1934, it was with the understanding
that the airwaves belonged to the people and therefore stations must
act in the public interest. In the 1960s Congress enacted specific
requirements to help ensure public access to the airwaves, including
launching the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1967.
1980s, however, saw the Reagan administration aggressively
deregulate broadcasting,eliminate the Fairness Doctrine, ease
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules and open the door for
media consolidation. In the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress
gave major corporations another free chunk of the spectrum
(estimated value $81 billion) to broadcast digital television, while
removing even more of the previous limits on ownership
consolidation. That act also required the recipients of this
Congressional largess to act in the public interest, but there is no
punishment for failure to do so.
With George W. Bush in
office, there is little doubt that the few remaining restrictions
and requirements will be stripped away altogether.
guy at the FCC, Chair Michael Powell, has given every indication
that he is willing to further relax the rules in order to allow more
mergers and buy-outs. FCC regulations that currently exist will be
reconsidered in the next few months.
Protections that could
be eliminated include:
- One company cannot own two TV stations in a single market
(unless at least eight media outlets within the same market remain
- A company cannot own both a local TV station and a cable
system in the same market.
- A single TV broadcaster cannot own stations that together
reach more than 35 percent of U.S. homes.
- One company cannot own both a TV station and a newspaper in
the same market.
- One cable provider cannot serve more than 30 percent of all
U.S. subscribers. This 30 percent cap was already struck down by a
U.S. Court of Appeals in March and it’s now up to the FCC to set a
new cap, which is sure to be much higher.
before he reviews the regulations, Powell is willing to grant
waivers that allow corporations to get around the rules,” said
Cheryl Leanza of the Media Access Project, pointing to FOX owner
News Corp.’s recent purchase of a fleet of local TV stations, which
puts it in violation of three of the above regulations.
the FCC continues along the path they’re on, we’re about to
experience a wave of media consolidation the likes of which we
haven’t seen before,” says Leanza.
What does all this mean?
In a media environment already neglectful of and sometimes hostile
toward women, the continued concentration of TV, radio and
newspapers into fewer hands presents a giant hurdle to winning
equality. All of NOW’s issues are affected. When the same news is
recycled from one outlet to another, diversity and community issues
suffer. And entertainment programming is produced increasingly with
an eye on the bottom line, not quality or
Internet Access Also Under
The same corporate control described above is
coming into play on the Internet as well, and concerned NOW members
at the 2001 National Conference passed a resolution on preserving
the openness and diversity of the Internet.
The Internet has
been hailed as the most democratic and participatory medium in
history. Right now feminist and other social justice organizations,
as well as individual activists, have an unprecedented ability to
communicate their messages to millions of people online. NOW has
even started its own Internet Service, NOWworld.
Internet service may soon converge with broadcast television, cable
and telephone services—through high-speed data transmission known as
In a likely scenario, Internet users will get
broadband service through their cable company. The cable companies,
if they get their way, will not allow users to chose their own
Internet Service Provider (ISP), instead forcing them to enter the
web through the company’s own portal. And in what are being called
“walled gardens,” these portals will direct users to sites run by
the cable company and their corporate partners in an effort, not to
communicate but to sell.
Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital
Democracy calls this a “Digital hall of mirrors.” Chester warns that
laws are being made right now that will determine how organizations
like NOW reach people on the web and how those people will in turn
“What’s emerging is a system that potentially
removes today’s easy access to the Internet,” says Chester. “These
big companies have a vision and it’s an outrageously undemocratic
Feminists must act now before we find ourselves
marginalized by corporate media interests. Call or write your
congress members and FCC Chair Michael Powell and tell them that you
support FCC regulations that limit media ownership and urge them to
pursue a national policy requiring cable operators, local phone
companies, and wireless services to provide non-discriminatory
access to the Internet for all content providers and internet