Albion Monitor /Commentary
Mass Mediations

Censoring the Telecom Debate

by Mark Lowenthal

As a media critic, one certainly encounters resistance on a regular basis -- not only from mainstream media representatives, but from a great many citizens either too indoctrinated or too frightened to accept some of the system's unsettling truths.

As silly as it may sound, one of the arguments that meets the strongest resistance is the assertion that media corporations -- or more specifically, their news products -- frequently reflect their own interests. The notion that news reports are colored by reporters' personal political biases? Sure, the public takes it as gospel. But the idea that institutional corporate interests and priorities color individual stories -- or keep them from appearing at you've ventured into conspiracy theory. As ostracized media and policy critic Noam Chomsky has long maintained, this assertion, far from being a conspiracy theory, is simply the most basic of institutional analysis.

For those who still find this idea to be just so much liberal hysteria, I give you: the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Why wouldn't these folks be ecstatic? The legislation, in its final form, serves their ideological and financial interests

Judging by mainstream news coverage of the freshly signed legislation, one would think that the telecom bill had been conceived, negotiated and handed down by Jesus Christ, with no less noble a purpose than resurrecting humanity -- or at least those of us lucky enough to live in the United States.

Praised by the nation's major news outlets -- including the San Francisco Chronicle, which described the bill as "the most significant accomplishment of a Congress that for more than a year has wrestled over budget issues with little concrete result" (February 2, p. A1) and the New York Times, which flatly proclaimed it "sound telecommunications policy" (February 9, p. A28), most news organizations also littered their accounts with understated quotes from political leaders and media executives such as "This is the most important legislation, I believe, in the history of this country," (Pacific Telesis CEO Paul Quigley) and "This is a grand celebration of the free-market system," (Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin).

And why wouldn't these folks be ecstatic? The legislation, in its final form, serves their ideological and financial interests famously. Indeed, the final bill serves the interests of everyone involved in the legislative negotiations -- except the public -- which, after all, wasn't really included in the negotiations either.

Provisions that allow for the unprecedented consolidation of media ownership

Blind Spot

Not included in any mainstream news coverage other than the most oblique of references, were the provisions that pose the greatest threat to the public interest. These, of course, are the provisions that allow for the unprecedented consolidation of media ownership.

Somehow, the nation's major news outlets did not find it in the least bit newsworthy that for the first time in history, one individual or company can own an unlimited number of television and radio stations -- including up to eight radio stations in the same market. Somehow, they did not find it newsworthy that it will now be legal for one company to own radio, network and cable television stations -- all in the same market. And perhaps most disturbing, no major news outlet found it newsworthy that the national "audience cap" has been raised to 35 percent -- making it legal for three companies to eventually own and control the entire news and information industry.

Most citizens know nothing of these provisions.

What they do "know" are the wonders and promises of the legislation as relayed by the "objective" press. According to the national news coverage, the telecom bill means increased competition, the creation of jobs, expanded consumer choice and lower prices for cable television and phone service. But let's take a closer look.

In the last two weeks, Jacor Communications has spent nearly $1 billion buying 31 radio stations


Increased competition is something of a semantic concept. On one hand, the telecom bill will create intense competition -- but only between the very few giants at the very top -- with the overwhelming majority of others being plowed under. Wiping out 90 percent of the marketplace -- including all independent voices -- while leaving a literal handful of corporate behemoths, cannot be called "competition" in even the most charitable sense of the word.

This dynamic is already being demonstrated in the radio industry where in just the first two weeks of February, Jacor Communications has spent nearly $1 billion buying 31 radio stations (to add to their existing 23) -- making them owner of the largest collection of radio stations in the United States.

"They had to get bigger or get out of the market," counseled Harry DeMott, a broadcasting analyst at CS First Boston (New York Times, February 14, p. D7). "If you're not one of those companies (such as Jacor, Westinghouse or Infinity)'s going to be very difficult to compete," he added.

Jacor president Randy Michaels was almost giddy at the prospect of the newly deregulated marketplace.

"We think the opportunity of owning a gazillion radio stations and a television station in one market is terrific."

The bill is expected to set off an unprecedented wave of mergers and take-overs

Job creation

Another glistening by-product of the new telecom bill -- at least according to the press coverage -- is the multitude of new jobs to be created by the resulting growth of the industry.

"We've got economic studies, conducted by the best, that show that nationally this legislation is going to account for 3 million new jobs," boasted Pacific Telesis CEO Quigley in the San Francisco Chronicle, 2/2, p. A1).

Such predictions strike one as curious at best, utterly ridiculous at worst.

As almost every news account has noted, the signing of the bill is expected to set off an unprecedented wave of mergers and take-overs. And as anyone paying even scant attention to the business world knows, mergers and take-overs inevitably result in downsizing -- also known in less Orwellian terminology as massive job cutting.

Indeed, the very same news outlets who, with unblinking optimism, bring us news of the "job-creating" telecom bill, have also, in the past few months, brought us news of communications giant AT&T slashing 40,000 jobs and Pac Bell cutting another 10,000. In addition, pending mergers, such as that of Bell Atlantic and NYNEX, are also expected to lead to major workforce reductions.

Page one said prices would be held down, but the business section said there won't be lower prices

Price reduction

The other mantra of telecom bill news coverage has, of course, been the real and perhaps only, tangible provision of the legislation for consumers: cable and phone rate reduction.

Unfortunately, this is also a largely mythical creature. To the contrary, there is no literal provision for this anywhere in the bill. The "rate reductions" referred to by proponents of the telecom bill are in fact expected rate reductions which, the logic goes, will be brought about by the equally mythical "competition" (see above). This is liberally demonstrated by the qualifying language inserted before all media references to such "reductions," as in "could lower prices for cable and telephone services and "cable and telephone rates are expected to decrease," etc.

In one strikingly ridiculous example the San Francisco Chronicle stated in a page-one story that "supporters contend that this new competition will hold down cable prices," while the headline of the lead story in the business section of the very same issue proclaims, "Telecom Reform Won't Ensure Lower Prices." Quite notably, the text of the accompanying story points out that "Pac Bell and TCI have already hinted they will compete more on service than price."

The ultimate irony of this is that they used to have literal, legally mandated price reduction and cost controls -- it was called the Cable Rate Reduction Act of 1992. But in the double-think unique to Washington, Congress -- in the name of rate reduction (or more accurately in the name of the cable industry) -- has eliminated the Cable Rate Reduction Act.

Farther reaching and infinitely more troubling is the unprecedented elimination of the anti-trust laws


This is not to say that no dissent was included in media coverage of the bill that deregulates the media. To be sure, there was wide-spread coverage of the bill's controversial Internet censorship provisions, as well as consistent, albeit marginal mention of consumer group concerns over the bill's rate deregulation.

The Internet controversy, while a sexy issue (both literally and figuratively), is really of minor importance. Aside from the fact that censorship of the 'net is virtually impossible to enforce, the administration is opposed to it and ultimately, the issue will be decided by the courts.

What is much farther reaching and infinitely more troubling, is the unprecedented elimination of the anti-trust laws designed to prevent undue media concentration. The reality of the telecom bill is that it not only allows, but encourages a frighteningly small number of huge corporations to control the production and dissemination of news and information.

As trite as it may be, the strength of a democracy is an informed electorate -- and this means not only the depth of information that citizens receive, but also the width; the range of ideas. A healthy democracy can only exist where there is a vibrant marketplace of ideas to inform it. And anyone who takes this notion seriously should be troubled by the prospect of a news and information system that is owned and controlled by a small number of large entities with alarmingly similar priorities and interests -- interests, incidentally, that frequently conflict with the public's.

In signing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, President Clinton stated that "Today, with the stroke of a pen, our laws will catch up with our future."

I fear for our future.

Mark Lowenthal is assistant director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

Albion Monitor February 18, 1996 (

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