More than 80% of Americans get their local news and information from local television and newspapers. Yet our access to these critical resources is at stake as the media become more and more concentrated.
Emergency Warnings When No One's There
Although the FCC requires local radio and television stations to serve the needs of the communities where they operate, they are often unable to do so under big media ownership because the huge corporate parent calls all the shots. For example, in Minot, North Dakota, local police tried to contact local radio outlets to broadcast emergency warnings about a local chemical spill. They could not reach anyone because the owner of all the local radio stations in town, Clear Channel Communications, Inc., was located thousands of miles away in Texas and did not quickly respond to the calls. Hundreds of local residents needlessly ended up in the emergency room after exposure to the spill.
Broadcasters and the Public Interest
Broadcasters use the public airwaves, and they receive licenses from the FCC providing them with the exclusive right to broadcast on particular frequencies. In exchange, they agree to serve the public interest. This includes covering local news, events and elections, providing a certain number of hours of children's programming, and serving the interests of their communities.
The FCC requires that local television stations keep files open to public inspection, which list the programs they broadcast, how they respond to public inquiries and other activities. This is a useful tool, because consumers can use the publicly available information to determine whether their local television station is meeting their community's needs.
Distant Owners Not Responsive to Local Needs
Unfortunately, as those in Minot personally experienced, distant owners are not necessarily responsive to community needs and are far less likely to cover local issues. When one company owns all or most of the local media outlets, this results in far less diversity of opinion on the airwaves. For example, when one company owns both a local TV station and the local newspaper, it often uses the same report to cover issues for both outlets.
This means that information that is critical to all community members — for example, investigative reports on questionable business practices that often bring an end to such practices — is not covered as extensively, making it more difficult for citizens to get all the facts about community issues.
Even when viewers think they are getting a local report, they might not be. For example, in Los Angeles, news reporters working for a single owner of two broadcast stations had microphones displaying one station's call letters that could be turned around to show the call letters for the other local station.
Consolidation in the Newsroom Hurts Local Coverage
Consider the November 15, 2004, report that the Tribune Co. plans to consolidate the Washington bureaus of its newspapers. Chicago Sun Times reporter Eric Herman wrote that the purpose of the consolidation is "to minimize repetition in editorial coverage, increase the communication and cooperation among [the] newspapers and reduce expenses."
In other words, the company will cut staff and, in doing so will cut their potentially different takes on similar events. Herman says that "Washington bureaus are known to resist headquarters." This is important, because it emphasizes journalistic freedom over the bottom line.
In 2004, the FCC approved Rupert Murdoch's Fox/News Corp. purchase of DirecTV, creating an empire of 35 TV stations, including two broadcast stations each in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, DC, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Orlando. If the FCC ban on owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same community had been eliminated, Fox/News Corp. could be even larger than it is today, as it would have been able to buy the main local newspaper in those cities, creating the potential for even greater media dominance in what are some of the nation's top markets.
FCC's Localism Hearings
The FCC, in reaction to enormous opposition to its proposed media ownership rules, is asking communities how they should ensure that media companies address local issues through "localism" — that is, television, newspaper and radio content geared toward local communities. On their web site, Free Press provides more information on what's at stake and lists the sites of these official town meetings. Free Press has a "Media Reform Activist Toolkit" that you can have sent to you for free. They are even hosting a few town meetings of their own which provide an opportunity for residents of communities across the country to get involved. Free Press and other media activists are working together to help you get your message out at these town meetings.
Others Fighting Media Consolidation
Another leader in the fight against excessive media concentration is the Donald McGannon Center at Fordham University, which has put together a package of resources on localism (PDF), including court cases, empirical studies and more.
The Parents TV Council has also gathered extensive localism resources, focusing on big media conglomerates that no longer pay attention to the needs of the local community - a condition that a media company explicitly agrees to when it buys a broadcast TV station and receives exclusive use of publicly-owned airwaves.
In addition to the town meetings, there are other meaningful opportunities for community members to make positive change in the area of media concentration. Both Free Press and the Center for Media Action list local, regional and national organizations urging limits on media consolidation. Common Cause is also working to ensure that media meets its obligations to serve the public by promoting diversity, accessibility and accountability among media corporations and government regulators. Leadership Conference on Civil Rights recently held a Congressional briefing which addressed the impacts of media concentration on minority media ownership and employment.
The Media Empowerment Project of OC, Inc. provides a comprehensive manual for local community understanding of media power and organizing for media justice.
The Center for Digital Democracy has a toolkit to help your group work on your communities' media needs. Seattle-based Reclaim the Media also regularly publishes information on its web site.