To grasp bigness, sometimes you have to take out the magnifying glass. That's what media observers are doing retrospectively with a story that came out of Minot, N.D., in January 2002. The small town was hit with a rail-car leak of anhydrous ammonia, an irritant that can cause serious injuries.
The story had a special media hook: When emergency officials contacted the town's radio stations to get warnings aired, they reportedly found five of six stations were running on taped feeds and couldn't take the call. The five stations were properties of mammoth Clear Channel Communications, which now owns 1,200-plus radio stations nationwide (and much else). Later, Clear Channel said Minot staffers did respond "beyond their professional responsibilities." The company put the blame on "local authorities' failure to install their Emergency Alert System equipment."
Either way, the assumption is that if Minot had more locally owned stations, the public would have been better warned. And beneath this assumption is a rock-bottom belief that federal policy has grown too friendly to media empires.
The best indication of this trend came a year after Minot, when organizations and ordinary people across the country took a hard look at Washington, D.C. Specifically, they put their magnifying glass to some business before the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. What they found was like a new species of dinosaur.
By way of background, the five-member FCC is bipartisan by definition -- no more than three members can be from the same political party. But as you'd expect, the commission has its own internal dynamics. The most-often heard voice is that of Michael Powell, a conservative who was appointed by Bill Clinton and made FCC chair by George W. Bush. Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin gravitate to Powell's side. Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are often a minority of two.
Normally a quiet presence, the FCC made headlines last June. Following provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the commission had been debating whether to relax federal limits on media ownership. On the other hand, pressure was building to keep the old rules in place. But on June 2, the commissioners voted 3-2 to adopt new rules that partially deregulated big chunks of the industry, allowing media companies to buy more properties than ever.
Even before the full impact of this was felt, an outraged public turned up the volume. The FCC received around 2.5 million responses, 99 percent of them opposing the changes.
Advocacy groups sprang into action, too. The Washington-based Media Access Project, a not-for-profit public-interest law firm, succeeded in getting a Philadelphia federal appeals court to issue a stay.
Public outrage at media policy is still high-pitched. But as the months go by, this outrage is being channeled into a national debate about "indecency." So now we're watching the FCC, which so recently gave away the store, going after big media on a morals charge.
The talk revolves around penalties: a 10-fold increase in the fine for each on-air indecency, for example. What will this amount to? "It's still a drop in a bucket," says Russell Newman, research director with the Media Reform/Free Press Network. "Whether it's $27,500 or $275,000, it's just another business expense" for the big companies.
Newman adds the obvious: Large fines will burden small independents disproportionately -- and thus tilt the playing field even more to mega-corporate advantage.
A more well-founded fear is stalking the land, though: the fear that monster media will put democracy itself at risk.
"A core value in a free society is that control over media should be widespread and diverse," says a statement from the Media Reform/Free Press Network. "In a capitalist society, this value is constantly challenged by the strong desire of businesses to dominate their markets as much as possible."
We the people must understand our controlling interest, so to speak. "Nearly all media markets are based on government-granted and -enforced monopoly privileges and subsidies," says Media Reform, citing "copyright, postal subsidies, monopoly radio and TV licenses, cable TV and satellite TV franchises."
"One can say the media is big business, but one can say truly that media is the biggest business," Newman says. "Ownership of the media has become incredibly consolidated. We're entering an age when a media giant owns not just channels but controls the distribution of those channels."
In answer, Newman and his group sponsored a National Conference on Media Reform last November in Madison, Wisc. The conference drew unexpectedly large numbers of activists -- and some members of Congress.
Conservatives have been hopping on this train, too. Last year, New York Times columnist William Safire decried the FCC changes. He amplified his worries in February, asking: "If one huge corporation controlled both the production and the dissemination of most of our news and entertainment, couldn't it rule the world?"
Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's top gun, said last year that the changes would harm "diversity of political opinion." NRA spokespeople, however, didn't follow through on a promise to comment for this article.
An energetic populism -- under the buzzword "localism" -- has hit the road, too. It blossomed, for example, at a March 8 public forum in Rochester, N.Y., convened by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter.
On the Rochester stage was a panel including owners and directors of independent Rochester media. The main attraction, though, was FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who last June cast one of the two dissenting votes against relaxing the ownership rules.
Last year's national response to the proposed FCC changes, he said outside the forum, "was unprecedented in the 70-plus years of the agency." Moreover, he says, opponents of the new rules included "huge numbers of people from the right and left, the National Rifle Association, the Catholic Conference of Bishops. Everybody thought this was a bad idea." He also named several Congressional members who have taken up the cause.
Adelstein says growing concentration will bring "ever less diversity at ever higher prices." He makes some quality judgments, too. "We're concerned about the homogenization of radio," he says. Individual stations "don't have their own news, their own reporters. Very little in-depth coverage. There used to be a lot more of that, but it's expensive."
Significant cases keep coming before the FCC. Adelstein mentions a recent decision: the commission's nod to the merger of News Corp and DirecTV. "I dissented," he says.
Yet the FCC today is construing the public interest more narrowly. It seems the commission is more concerned about Janet Jackson's breast exposure or Bono's f-wording than almost anything else.
In regard to media monsters, the decency crusade may end up demonstrating the old Nietzschean principle dear to radio host G. Gordon Liddy: Whatever doesn't kill them makes them stronger. But dinosaurs of any sort co-exist with pesky critters in the underbrush -- and eventually the more adaptable life forms have their day. Certainly the Internet and Web-based populist efforts like indymedia.org are carving out space for themselves.
The FCC is looking at such a critter: low-power FM radio (LPFM). In 2000, the commission gave the go-ahead to noncommercial stations of 100 watts or less -- including Thin Air Radio in Spokane (95.3-FM and at kyrs.org). Then broadcasters complained LPFM would cause too much interference with their signals.
Of course, that's no comment on the political interference that could hamper LPFM for some time. But here again, a mobilized public, aware the airwaves legally belong to everyone, could make the difference.