December 12, 2007

The Arrogance of Kevin Martin

[Click on the image above - which graphically portrays media consolidation over the past 25 years - to see it at full size. Click here to visit the article from which it is sourced.]

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) Chairman Kevin Martin announced that a vote on his plan to further relax media ownership rules would take place next week, apparently intent on working at cross purposes with the expressed interest of the public at large. Worse, Mr. Martin - mindful of the vast outcry against his predecessor Michael Powell's own efforts to permit expanded ownership by media companies - is pursuing his goal without distributing the proposed regulations for public review, and without providing sufficient time for comment.

Last year, I documented the F.C.C.'s previous attempt to make it possible for large corporations to more easily control what people see and hear in High-Handedness at the F.C.C., and followed up with a warning in Vigilance Required that another effort was likely to follow. Mr. Martin's newest push to abrogate the legal relationship between the public and broadcasters (under which the latter must serve the public interest in return for licenses granted by the former) makes it depressingly clear that the title of the second post could not have been more apt. For those of you less familiar with this issue however, it is worth revisiting the current state of media ownership (also see graphic above):
  • Presently, six major companies control most of the media in the United States. Disney owns 10 television stations, 50 radio stations, ABC, ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, Discover magazine, Hyperion publishing, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Film Corporation. Viacom owns 39 television stations, 184 radio stations, The Movie Channel, BET, Nickelodeon, TV Land, MTV, VH1, Scribner, and Paramount Pictures. (Viacom also owned CBS and Simon & Schuster directly before Viacom split into the CBS Corporation and Viacom in 2005. They are now separate entities, but Sumner Redstone is chairman of both boards of directors.) General Electric owns 13 television stations, NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, and Bravo. News Corporation owns 26 television stations, Fox Broadcasting, FX, Fox News Channel, TV Guide, The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, DirecTV, HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and MySpace.

  • Since 1995, the number of companies that own commercial television stations has declined by 40 percent, and three media giants own all of the cable news networks. Comcast and Time Warner serve 40% of cable households, and cable television rates have climbed 40 percent since the 1996 Telecom Act.

  • The Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed restrictions on the number of radio stations that can be owned by a single entity, leading to significant consolidation. Where previously, one company could not own more than 40 radio stations nationwide, today, Clear Channel Communications alone now owns almost 1,200 stations across the country.

  • Major corporations, including Time Warner, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News and USA Today dominate the top Internet news sites.
While mergers and acquisitions are a regular feature of the corporate world and a consistent byproduct of the free market, there still exist rules and regulations designed to ensure that monopolies cannot be established and collusion is not tolerated. In the case of broadcasters, publishers and other media companies, however, something even more precious is at stake than the economic rewards and influence garnered by successfully absorbing or squeezing out competition: information.

In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, "knowledge is power," but despite public ownership of the airwaves - and the fact that the F.C.C. grants licenses to broadcasters with the express understanding that they will serve the common interest - to their shareholders, media companies exist to make profits, even if doing so runs counter to the collective well-being. And while profits often derive from the economies of scale that can accompany consolidation, it is crucial to remember that media firms don't manufacture goods, they provide the data from which public knowledge is formed. It is no exaggeration to say that if that data is no longer dependable, our republic will cease to function as intended.

In the case of information - unlike that of manufacturing - the number, variety and divergence of sources for raw material is directly related to quality and success. In real journalism, a single source is deemed insufficient to form the basis of a story (something about which Joe Klein unquestionably needs to be reminded) and the best, most trustworthy information is synthesized from a myriad of origins. Where manufacturing succeeds with economies of scale, knowledge flourishes with economies of diversity. One need only recall the almost universally unquestioning, inaccurate and ineffective reportage devoted to non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to our invasion of that country, to understand why this issue is so vital to the health of our nation.

Given that the last attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to relax media ownership requirements was harshly rebuffed, that the public is broadly and vocally opposed to further consolidation, and that the Senate Commerce Committee has approved legislation requiring the F.C.C. to delay rule changes for 6 months and is not expected to treat him kindly when he goes before them on Thursday, the arrogance of Kevin Martin - an unelected, bureaucratic appointee - in working to push through new rules out of sight of the people in whose interests he is supposed to serve is truly staggering. Considering the track record of corruption, cronyism and profiteering so characteristic of the Bush Administration, however - as well as Michael Powell's successful transition to the upper echelons of private enterprise - perhaps it should come as no surprise.

Rich rewards for his advocacy of industry over public interest and a plum position almost certainly await Mr. Martin when he leaves the F.C.C., public opinion and reaction be damned. While the Senate appears to be making the right moves to counter the chairman, it is clear that, while he is still collecting a U.S. government paycheck, he almost unquestionably serves a master other than the American people. Kevin Martin is out of control, and he needs to be removed from office; the sooner the better.

2 comments:

Adam Elend said...

Enjoyed your post, but your consolidation list needs to be updated...

CBS and Simon & Schuster split from Viacom a couple of years ago.

Sumner Redstone is the Chairman of both boards, but they are separate entities.

PBI said...

Adam,

Thanks for stopping by!

You are correct, and I have updated the post to reflect that fact.

Best,
PBI