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National NOW Times >> Fall, 2001 >> Article

Will the Media Merger Free-For-All Extinguish Women’s Voices?

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney, Communications Director

Women’s rights 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 You

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.

The 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.

Bush’s new 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 separately owned).
  • 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.

“Even 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.

“If 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 responsibility.

Internet Access Also Under Threat

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.

However, Internet service may soon converge with broadcast television, cable and telephone services—through high-speed data transmission known as broadband.

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 find NOW.

“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 one.”

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 services.

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