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The Escalating War Against Corporate Media

This article is a revised and abridged version of chapter 7 from Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2004). Footnotes for the material in this article are available in the book.

A recurring issue for the left historically has been how to address the capitalist media. In recent years the problem has grown ever more severe, and no small amount of attention has been given to examining the problems of the commercial media and how closely they reinforce and accentuate problems within the broader social order. The logic of this criticism has become clear: progressives need to work on challenging the corporate domination of media as part of the broader struggle for social justice. If changing media is left until “after the revolution,” there will be no revolution, not to mention fewer chances for social reform. But politicizing control over media has proven to be extraordinarily difficult for activists. That is why the massive and largely unanticipated 2003 campaign in the United States to stop further media concentration, which almost overnight reached a scale not seen in media reform struggles since the 1930s, is so important and instructive. This article chronicles that revolt.

The Media Reform Movement Comes to Life

Today we can see that hidden from public view in the 1990s had been a mounting concern over media. The changes wrought by neoliberal measures such as the 1996 Telecommunications Act only fanned the flames of this burgeoning movement. Magazines such as The Nation, The Progressive, and In These Times began to feature stories not only criticizing mainstream media but also reporting on nascent efforts to change media policies. The progressive media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) flourished, as did the Media Education Foundation, the premier producer of critical videos on media. Across the nation local media watch groups, reform organizations, and independent media outlets began to sprout. Critical books on media and journalism began selling better than they had in the past. National “media and democracy” conferences were held in San Francisco and New York in 1996 and 1997, respectively, drawing many hundreds of activists.

Media activism was enjoying a distinct dynamism. The emergence of Independent Media Centers in the wake of the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999 galvanized opposition to corporate media among a generation of young activists. Already media reform activism had reached a level not seen in many decades, but it still had not reached the levels of the Progressive Era and the 1930s. Despite all the activity and despite evidence that the American people were concerned about this issue, the media reform movement was almost entirely outside the mainstream political culture and invisible within the commercial news media. It did not exist in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the American people.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the media reform movement had its first notable skirmish in the battle for low-power FM radio (LPFM). The technology began in the late 1980s when it became possible to transmit radio signals easily and inexpensively, and soon several people began conducting low-power broadcasting on the open FM frequencies in their communities. The pioneer was an African-American activist, Mbanna Kantako, who began broadcasting to his neighborhood in Springfield, Illinois. By the 1990s scores of people were engaging in low-power broadcasting, and they were doing so without licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Commercial broadcasters demanded that the FCC stop the “pirates,” and the FCC obliged—taking legal action against several microbroadcasters. But it soon became apparent that the low cost and ease of use of the technology made it virtually impossible to police. That these broadcasters were able easily to locate open slots in the FM band—and therefore not interfere with existing stations—made LPFM seem benign, and it roused no public concern.

FCC chairman William Kennard recognized the difficulty in policing LPFM and decided to implement a widespread but cautious program to legalize LPFM stations across the nation. He was especially concerned with how the lifting of the radio ownership caps in 1996 had led to a sharp decline in the number of African-American station owners. Because most minority station owners generally held only a small number of stations, they found it impossible to compete with emerging giants like Clear Channel and were forced to sell out. Kennard wanted a plan that would get LPFM licenses into the hands of community groups representing people underserved by the commercial radio system.

After months of study the FCC released its plan—generally regarded by LPFM advocates as being more cautious than necessary—for the establishment of more than one thousand LPFM stations in 2000. These noncommercial stations would be licensed to locally-based nonprofit organizations. On the surface this looked like a clear victory for the American people: more stations, more choice, no commercialism, and more local content. Only one very small group of individuals disliked the plan: owners and managers of commercial broadcasting companies. These broadcasters did not want more competition for “their” listeners, especially not of a noncommercial and local variety. Such competition might require them to reduce advertising and increase local content to keep listeners from defecting, and those changes would come directly out of their profit margins.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) put a full court press on Congress to overturn Kennard’s LPFM plan. The lobby could not, for PR purposes, admit to greed as a motive; instead it argued that one thousand new LPFM stations would create interference with the signals transmitted by existing broadcasters. The problem with this claim, as Kennard futilely explained, was that the engineering plans for inserting the new stations into the FM band were drawn largely from recommendations made a few years earlier by engineers who represented commercial broadcasters—when they wanted to make their own changes to the radio dial. Those changes had been implemented without causing signal interference.

The House, led by the commercial broadcasters’ chief advocate in that body, Representative Billy Tauzin, voted to overturn Kennard’s plan and reduce the number of LPFM stations to around two or three hundred, mostly in small cities and rural areas. The Senate was less willing to oblige corporate broadcasters, significantly because the ranking Republican on the relevant Senate commerce committee, Arizona’s John McCain, refused to comply with the NAB’s wishes. Of considerable importance, too, was the appearance of an organized lobbying effort with a significant grassroots element provided by LPFM advocates, including the Future of Music Coalition and the Prometheus Radio Project. This campaign drew a broad range of support, including organized labor, church groups, and civil rights organizations. This organizing effort was instrumental in mobilizing congressional support for the Kennard LPFM plan.

In the end, the NAB won—and the number of LPFM stations was reduced from one thousand to a few hundred. It was not through a majority vote on the Senate floor, but through a rider put on the budget bill in late December 2000. “There were no hearings. It was done in the appropriations process at a time when all the special interests know that their power is greatly enhanced because it is done in the dark of night,” Kennard later explained in an interview. “You know, you wake up the next day and legislation is written. The people who had the most to say about it are completely cut out of the process. If I sound bitter, I am.”

Media reform activists learned crucial lessons from the LPFM fight: organizing around tangible reform proposals could actually generate popular support and sustained attention on Capitol Hill. For the first time in memory, organized people were challenging organized money on media policy issues. The industry had been forced to resort to a middle-of-the-night maneuver to get its way. Momentum for media reform continued to grow. In the spring of 2002, Representative Bernard Sanders of Vermont convened the first-ever “congressional town meetings” to address the problem of “corporate control of the media.” Held on consecutive nights in Montpelier and Burlington, the events drew overflow crowds of several hundred people to everyone’s surprise. Sanders, who had held scores of town meetings in Vermont on a wide range of public policy issues since entering Congress in 1991, could not recall ever getting such an enthusiastic response. “I think this shows that the movement for democratic media reform strikes a chord among the citizenry. It is going to be a long-term process but, after these last two days, I really think we can win it.”

The issue that finally put the media reform movement on the map was media ownership regulations. The 1996 Telecommunications Act required the five-member FCC to review its media ownership rules every two years to see if they needed to be revised in view of changing circumstances. The FCC held these biennial reviews twice after 1996 as required and ruled each time that conditions had not changed sufficiently to warrant changes in ownership rules. New FCC chairman Michael Powell, chosen by President George W. Bush to replace Kennard, formed a media ownership working group of FCC staffers to study the matter in October 2001. He was expressly committed to scrapping media ownership rules as rapidly as possible. Instead, the hard work of the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, intended to keep Congress aware of what the FCC was planning and to slow down Powell, prevented him from moving quickly. As the Consumers Union’s Gene Kimmelman recalls, “Industry was extremely angry that Powell ‘wasted’ six to nine months” in 2001 and 2002 before he got on track.

Not willing to rely simply on the FCC, the corporate media lobbies were simultaneously working the court system in an attempt to have all the ownership rules thrown out. In February and April 2002, in two rulings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, known for its neoliberal bent, sided with industry lawyers. It pronounced that unless the FCC could prove that media ownership rules clearly served the public interest, the intent of Congress in the 1996 Telecommunications Act was that they be abolished.

The FCC announced its next biennial review of media ownership rules in September 2002. As a result of this review, ownership restrictions would have to be defended or else the rules would be tossed and media ownership would be subject only to antitrust enforcement, like other industries. Six rules were under review, including the prohibition against newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership and the rules regulating the number of TV stations a single firm could own locally and nationally. At that point, firms were permitted to own only one TV station in a market, except in the very largest cities, where they could own two. Firms were also prohibited from owning TV stations that, in total, reached more than 35 percent of the population, though both Viacom and News Corporation had been granted waivers by the FCC to exceed that figure. These were the rules that the industry was most eager to see relaxed or eliminated.

Powell & Copps Take the Stage

It was ironic that FCC chairman Michael Powell would be the official responsible for demonstrating to the courts that media ownership rules could be justified as serving the public interest. The son of Colin Powell, Michael Powell was being groomed for a career as a major player in the Republican Party. Long before the autumn of 2002, Powell had emerged as an enthusiastic, almost religious, proponent of neoliberal ideology and called for extending “full First Amendment rights” to commercial broadcasters. In theory that meant unvarnished praise for free markets, in practice it meant giving the corporate media lobbies whatever they wanted. For example, he opposed Kennard’s LPFM plan. Even if deregulation led to more concentration, even monopoly, Powell’s approach was to damn the torpedoes and plow full-speed ahead: “I don’t see why we have to tell companies they have to eat their vegetables before they get their dessert.” Powell saw the role of the FCC as facilitating profit making for corporations, pure and simple: “Government policy needs to follow the rule of capital and investment, not always the other way around.”

Powell had never been especially concerned about media concentration. “Monopoly is not illegal by itself in the United States,” Powell commented in early 2002. “People tend to forget this. There is something healthy about letting innovators try to capture markets.” While he acknowledged that a complete monopoly was problematic legally, he characterized the duopoly of satellite television—with two firms controlling the entire market—as “a vibrant competitive market.” Powell conceded that he found the very notion of public interest regulation dubious: “The public interest works with letting the market work its magic.” In Powell’s view, he was “working himself out of a job” at the FCC by having public interest regulation eliminated, and the sooner he did it, the better.

Having this corporate media enthusiast in charge of defending the FCC’s right to regulate media ownership in the public interest was like putting Florida’s Republican secretary of state Katherine Harris in charge of Al Gore’s Florida recount team in November 2000. The other two Republican members of the FCC were, if anything, even more devoted to advancing commercial media interests. Kathleen Q. Abernathy had been a corporate lobbyist before joining the FCC and was characterized as a “quiet warrior” for ownership deregulation. She almost never appeared in public and was seen as a “reliable vote” for Chairman Powell. Abernathy was much appreciated among corporate media lobbyists; she lavished praise upon the corporate-controlled plan for digital radio as “a win-win for everyone.” The other Republican, Kevin Martin, had worked as a lawyer in the powerhouse Washington law firm of Wiley, Rein & Fielding, whose business was representing corporate communication clients. Richard Wiley, Martin’s boss and a former FCC member, was a zealous advocate of eliminating media ownership rules. Wiley spent so much time in FCC headquarters that he was dubbed the “sixth member” of the FCC. Martin also worked full-time on the Bush-Cheney election campaign as a general counsel from 1999 to 2001.

Because the commission had a vacancy for a Democratic member in the fall of 2002, the one dissenting voice to a thorough relaxation of media ownership rules was Michael Copps, a Democrat with a doctoral degree in history, who had been appointed in 2001. Copps, too, was a patronage appointee, having served as an aide for many years to Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. Perhaps it was because the Democrats were out of power and therefore less deferential to the media lobby—or perhaps it was simply because Copps was cut from a different cloth—but very early on it became clear that he was not at all like Kennard and the other Democrats who had recently served on the FCC. A self-described New Dealer, Copps was the one vote against approving Comcast’s takeover of AT&T’s cable systems in 2002: “The sheer economic power created by this mega-combination, and the opportunities for abuse that would accompany it, outweigh the very limited public interest benefits that either the Applicants or the majority find here.” Copps rejected the Powell-Abernathy-Martin formulation that if a merger generated increased efficiencies (generally measured by profits) it meant the deal would be beneficial to the public: “It strikes me as bedrock that our review of proposed consolidations must venture beyond economic efficiencies if we are to ensure that combinations serve the public interest.”

Copps was adamant that the FCC’s review of media ownership rules needed to reach out to the public. “We need much wider participation,” he argued. “This is not an inside-the-Beltway issue.” Copps thought the commission’s plan to allow for sixty days of public comment was insufficient in view of the stakes involved. He suggested that the FCC hold a series of hearings around the nation to gauge public opinion on the issue. Powell, supported by the other commissioners, was “unenthusiastic” and formally rejected Copps’s recommendation in November. By this time, relations between Powell and Copps had already become frosty. Copps issued a release expressing “alarm” and “disappointment” at Powell’s refusal to hold public hearings or to find other ways to generate increased public participation.

At the end of 2002 all indications were that the Republican majority would get their way and ownership limits would be greatly relaxed, if not eliminated. The courts were on board. The FCC majority was on board. Only three votes were required; the deck was stacked against Copps. But in January 2003 the tide slowly but perceptibly began to change. Jonathan Adelstein, an aide to Senator Tom Daschle, joined the FCC as the second Democrat and immediately demonstrated that he shared Copps’s concerns. “It violates every tenet of a free society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media,” he stated. The organizing effort against media consolidation began to get attention in Congress; several letters were sent by members of the House and Senate, by Republicans as well as Democrats, to Powell calling on him to open up the process, slow it down, and take concerns about media consolidation more seriously.

In particular, Powell and the FCC came in for a grilling on Capitol Hill in two January hearings. Here the work of the Consumers Union and other activist organizations to educate members of Congress on media ownership issues paid dividends. As Copps noted, members of Congress expressed considerable concern that Powell was planning to railroad through ownership rule changes without public or congressional input. Recounting a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in January that included testimony from FCC members, Copps explained, “This was supposed to be a hearing on telecommunications. We weren’t into that hearing two minutes, I’ll bet, before one senator after another started asking about media consolidation and what’s going on down there at the Commission. Equally interesting, it wasn’t just the Democratic side, but it was also the Republican side.”

Copps fanned these flames of interest by encouraging a public hearing on media ownership at Columbia University in January. Powell, Adelstein, and Martin attended the informal hearing. Although the panels were evenly balanced with industry and nonindustry participants, the tenor of the audience was decidedly anxious about media consolidation.

Beltway Opposition Stiffens

By the end of January 2003, any hope that Michael Powell and the FCC majority were going to breeze through relaxation of media ownership rules was dashed. Powell’s refusal to join Copps and Adelstein in a series of public hearings around the nation to solicit public input was becoming more and more of a PR problem. Finally, “clearly feeling the pressure,” as one broadcasting trade publication observed, Powell made an “unusual turnaround” and agreed to hold one official hearing in Richmond, Virginia, in February. It was “a victory of sorts for Copps,” and the trade press noted that Powell hoped this would put an end to talk about public hearings. Powell dismissed the idea that additional FCC public hearings on media ownership would be necessary or beneficial. He selected Richmond for its proximity to Washington—it would make it a day trip for FCC officials and lobbyists—and he intimated to the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable that he thought the Richmond hearing would be a waste of time. There was too much real work to be done in Washington studying the issue of media ownership, he argued, to gallivant around the country. Anyway, “in the digital age, you don’t need a nineteenth-century whistle-stop tour to hear from America.” Powell invited Americans to use the Internet to send him and the FCC their thoughts on the relaxation of media ownership rules.

In truth, Powell had a pretty clear idea long before the Richmond hearing of how he wanted to change the rules. But the specifics would remain a closely guarded secret until May, three weeks before a final vote, when the law required Powell to disclose them to the other commissioners. Powell and his staffers discussed the matter with Abernathy, Martin, and their staffers to make sure their votes were safe, but Adelstein and especially Copps were outside the loop. Powell used much of the spring to sell media rule changes to Congress and the public, so the process would look like a legitimate undertaking, not a kowtowing to well-heeled corporate interests. Sure, he knew he was going to get his three votes no matter what, but the bumpier the ride at the FCC the harder the fight might be later in Congress and the more political fallout might hit the White House.

The problem was made much more desperate for Powell because Copps and Adelstein were both so openly contemptuous of how the FCC was proceeding. Copps was planning to hold public hearings in the spring of 2003 across the nation, without Powell if need be, and use them as a “bully pulpit” to bring media ownership “to the public’s attention.” This was historically unprecedented for the FCC; in the past an FCC chair like Powell would have never had to worry about dissent from other members or public concern about FCC operations. “I don’t recall ever seeing before the level of open and very public dispute among the commissioners on these issues,” a lobbyist for Clear Channel and News Corporation commented. Powell was in dangerous, uncharted territory.

In a sense, Powell deserves some sympathy. His career had been built upon lavishing praise on the market and unbridled contempt for ownership rules or regulation in the public interest—but, as the response from Congress and the public made clear by January, that tack would be counterproductive in 2003. Powell began to present himself as an earnest pragmatist repelled by extremism and incendiary rhetoric. “I am absolutely a good middle-of-the-road moderate,” he told an audience at Harvard in April. His moderation, however, was not based on any moderation of his extreme views on regulation, but, rather, upon his willingness to proceed at a slower pace to get what he wanted.

Powell spent much of the first half of 2003 painting himself as the reluctant deregulator. “These rules, if I do nothing, will be dead soon,” Powell remarked to an audience of investors organized by Goldman Sachs. Why? “Because the courts say so—the courts demand that a regulatory agency justify its rules.” “Keeping the rules exactly as they are, as some so stridently suggest,” is “not a viable option.” As Powell’s point man Ken Ferree put it, “Courts are saying, ‘Hey, don’t come here and tell us this rule is necessary because you believe it to be. You’ve got to come in with empirical evidence and show exactly what harms you’re preventing, and how you do the balancing.’”

The court of appeals in Washington D.C. had based its 2002 ruling on the belief that Congress’s intent in the 1996 Telecommunications Act was to eliminate media ownership rules unless incontrovertible and overwhelming evidence justified their continuation in the public interest. Powell accepted this view and elected not to appeal the court’s interpretation. “Congress shifted the burden to the FCC, rather than the industry, to demonstrate the need for a rule,” Powell explained. “The congressional bias is for deregulation and the standard for maintaining a rule is an enormous hill to climb.” To Copps and Adelstein, Powell’s response defied logic, since the law that established the FCC mandated the commission to serve the public interest. As Copps observed, “That phrase, ‘serving the public interest, convenience, and necessity,’ appears 112 times in the statute. So I think Congress was serious about us serving the public interest.”

Had Powell elected to appeal the court’s interpretation of the Telecommunications Act, he would have had a powerful legal case. The act merely states that every two years the FCC “shall determine whether any of such rules are necessary in the public interest as the result of competition. The Commission shall repeal or modify any regulation it determines to be no longer in the public interest.” Although the spirit of the law pushed toward relaxation of the rules, since competition was presumed to be increasing, Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, argued that the law permitted the FCC to tighten media ownership rules if it found market conditions warranted doing so in the public interest. At any rate, conditions had not changed much since 1996 when the law was passed. If Congress had wanted to throw out the ownership rules in 1996, it could have done so itself. Indeed, the evidence from Congress was clear: many who voted for the Telecommunications Act intended ownership rules to remain unless striking, unforeseeable developments occurred. The FCC’s job was to monitor these developments.

Few in Congress bought Powell’s line that “the courts are making me do this.” Literally scores of members of Congress wrote to Powell in 2003 making explicit their conviction that the appeals court interpretation of congressional intent was wrong. Powell and the FCC “could maintain limits if they wanted to,” the media activist Jeff Chester maintained. “He doesn’t want to.”

Powell’s Three Arguments

In general, as Powell made his case for relaxing the media ownership rules, he seemed to be channeling Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone as he spoke. This hardly helped his image as a moderate pragmatist determined to salvage what he could of public interest regulation in a hostile world, or at least, in the face of a hostile Appeals Court. Powell made three points over and over during the course of 2003. First, he argued that with the radical increase in media channels due to cable TV and the Internet, concerns over media concentration were quickly becoming “a moot issue.” “Today choices abound,” Powell wrote in USA Today. “This abundance means more programming, more choice, and more control in the hands of citizens.” In addition to hundreds of TV channels, “Americans now have access to a bottomless well of information called the Internet.” Powell maintained that this “democratization of technology” undermined traditional concerns about media concentration and any rationale for ownership regulation. Here Powell echoed NBC CEO Robert Wright, who termed media ownership rules “ridiculous.” Indeed, Powell proclaimed that the problem with the media system was not too much concentration but “hyper-competitiveness” that led desperate firms to present vulgar fare they might not produce otherwise.

Although Powell was correct about the emergence of new channels, the argument that this undermined the need for ownership regulation was far from convincing. Chris Murray of the Consumers Union pointed out, “Yes, there are 500 channels on cable television, but five companies control the same market share that the three networks did in the 1970s.” The degree to which the same large media corporations owned the TV networks, the cable TV channels, and the Hollywood film studios was a subject that Powell, with his purported obsession with quantitative data, never acknowledged. If the FCC relaxed the ownership rules further, those five companies would only increase their hold. Although there were a gazillion Web sites, that hardly qualified as genuine commercial competition.

But there was an even more fundamental problem with Powell’s argument that the multitude of new media undermines concerns about media concentration. There was and is an empirical measure of the truth behind this statement, a way to determine whether conditions had changed sufficiently to justify relaxing media ownership limits on broadcasters. The traditional justification for having media ownership rules was based on the idea that the government was granting firms beachfront property in the media system when they were given monopoly licenses to broadcast channels. Therefore the public had an interest in preventing firms from monopolizing these scarce licenses and dominating the media system. If the existence of so many new media channels through cable TV and the Internet had undermined the market power of the broadcast licenses, then having a TV or radio channel was no longer owning beachfront property but rather holding a mere grain of sand on the digital beach, as Michael Powell suggested.

In that scenario, one would rationally expect the value of radio and TV licenses to stagnate and eventually fall. After all, what rational capitalist would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase a TV station if someone else could effectively compete with him by spending a pittance to produce a hundred Web sites? In fact, the value of radio and TV licenses had increased since 1996, and at a much greater rate than the rate of inflation. These licenses do indeed continue to confer tremendous market power or, as economists would say, monopolistic power. That is why large media companies lobby incessantly to relax the ownership rules: they want to purchase more stations. That is why media ownership rules continue to be necessary. When News Corporation and Viacom and Disney and General Electric are dumping their TV stations and the price of a license is going into the toilet, Powell will have a more convincing case.

Powell’s second argument on behalf of relaxing media ownership rules was related to the first; he claimed that unless big media companies could own more and more TV stations they would not be able to make a profit and “free TV” would end. The current media ownership rules were going to drive the major TV networks out of business. In making this argument, Powell presented himself as a populist crusader focused on the needs of those who could not afford cable TV, satellite TV, or pay-per-view channels. (This of course seemed to contradict his first argument about everyone having access to limitless choice on the Internet.) The hardship claim was straight out of the TV networks’ playbook. Viacom president Mel Karmazin told the Senate Commerce Committee in May that network television is “not a very good business.” Viacom’s lobbyists argued that media ownership rules had to be relaxed “to help ensure that free, over-the-air broadcasting continues to be available across America.” Rupert Murdoch told Congress that allowing broadcast companies to own more stations was necessary for over-the-air television to survive: “It’s about impossible to run an entertainment network at a profit.”

There were two problems with this argument. First, even if true, is it rational public policy to protect firms in a dying industry? Shouldn’t there be a broader debate about how best to deploy public resources, if the network TV structure had become outdated? Also, even if the networks were struggling, the parent companies were almost all doing very well and also owned most of the cable TV channels. What guarantee was there that these firms would maintain free television in the future? Perhaps these companies would get to own all the stations and then determine that there was a more profitable use of the public airwaves. Was Powell prepared to require these companies to broadcast free television in exchange for receiving more TV channels? In short, Powell’s “policy” with regard to saving network TV seemed half-baked.

The second problem with Powell’s campaign to “save free TV” was that it was premised on a bogus claim—in fact, an outright lie. Media mogul Barry Diller, who built the Fox TV network, scoffed at Powell’s concerns about the networks’ financial health: “Anybody who thinks they’re in trouble hasn’t read the profit statements of these companies. The only way you can lose money in broadcasting is if somebody steals it from you.” Ironically, exactly at the moment Powell was pressing this case, in May 2003, the same TV networks that claimed to be on their deathbed recorded the greatest wave of advance advertising sales in U.S. history. The head of Disney’s ABC was ecstatic. “It’s like being back in college and pulling those all-nighters,” he said of their efforts to process all the sales. “Broadcast Nets Hit the Jackpot,” one headline read, with the article concluding, “The market was red-hot everywhere this year.” “By the time you read this,” one trade publication plastered on its front page, “many TV ad sales executives will be on the golf course celebrating the record $21 billion upfront market.” Moreover, market research suggested that broadcast advertising was expected to continue to climb at a healthy clip through 2007. Their economic future was bright indeed.

Powell’s third argument contradicted the logic of his second argument, in which he suggested that media mergers might save free TV. He now claimed that the relaxation of media ownership rules that the FCC proposed would not amount to a big deal: “I think there will be an increase in mergers, but not to the extent that it would cause public policy concerns.” “The United States has the most diverse media marketplace in the world,” Powell wrote, adding, “our nation’s media landscape will not become significantly more concentrated as a result of changes to the FCC rules.” Therefore, Powell suggested, his opponents were making much ado about nothing.

Powell provided no evidence for this argument. Indeed, there was considerable evidence that the largest media firms and Wall Street investment banking houses anticipated a major wave of media mergers once the rules were relaxed. “Everyone is waiting for the new rules; then they’ll pounce,” one banker predicted. The trade press teemed with articles throughout the first half of 2003 in which industry insiders discussed the impending merger mania. The tone was often giddy. “Major media companies are drawn and cocked,” the Denver Post publisher and MediaNews Group CEO William Dean Singleton announced. Singleton was especially pleased because the FCC rule changes would make it possible for firms like his to grow so large as to assure their dominance of the Internet: “We are in the news and information business. In fact, we own it.”

The greatest wave of mergers was expected at the local level, where the profit potential of owning the daily newspaper, two or three TV stations, and eight radio stations was the stuff of media owner fantasies. After all, look at what Clear Channel had accomplished with radio since 1996. Imagine if you could toss in the daily newspaper and a few TV stations, too. As one investment analyst put it, “The media companies’ top priority is more concentrated power in local markets.” “The big guys will get bigger,” a leading media financial analyst concluded, sounding a bit like Don Corleone, “and the little guys will have to decide whether they want to exist anymore.” Or as Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said, Powell’s decision to loosen media ownership rules “rings the dinner bell for big media corporations who are salivating to make a meal out of the nation’s many small media outlets.”

Of course, no one knew for certain what would happen. Perhaps time would prove Powell’s third argument correct and there would not be all that many deals as a result of rules relaxation. But to Copps and Adelstein this was reckless policy making, when the prudent course was to be cautious. “Some argue that the concern about the threat to American democracy is overblown since it is so strong and resilient,” Adelstein said. “While our democracy is strong and not about to crumble, does it mean we can afford to weaken it?” “This is a huge and foolhardy gamble with the future,” Copps warned. “Suppose for a moment that the FCC votes to remove or significantly modify the concentration protections. Suppose that turns out to be a mistake,” Copps questioned. “How would we ever put the genie back in the bottle? The answer is we could not. That’s why we need a national dialogue on the issue and better data and analysis.”

Opposition Grows Beyond the Beltway

Michael Powell’s campaign to advance the case for loosening media ownership rules in the spring of 2003 was based upon contradictory arguments constructed with dubious evidence. In the battle for public opinion, this put him at a decided disadvantage. His arguments did not appear to convince people who were not invested in the system and did not share his euphoric attitude toward the U.S. commercial media system. In years past, that wouldn’t have mattered because Americans would have been clueless about the FCC’s proceedings. But in 2003 many things had changed, not the least of which was that FCC member Michael Copps had taken it upon himself to rouse public interest and involvement in the issue.

“This is still, in my mind, very much an inside-the-Beltway issue,” Copps explained in February. “It has not become one where the country is really plugged into it and knows what’s going on here. That’s because the country doesn’t really know. If it did know, I think a lot of people would be vitally interested in the outcome.” Copps was blunt about his mission: “I am trying to raise as much ruckus as I can about it.” In doing so, Copps found the public to be receptive; people had considerable concerns about media, and when they learned these concerns could be attached to a specific policy, their interest grew dramatically. Fairly soon, Copps had many more allies than he could have anticipated, far beyond the stalwart public interest groups in Washington, D.C.

The official FCC hearing in Richmond on February 27 was an omen. Four of the five hours were devoted to panelists, and most of the twenty-one experts were from out of town, including a large contingent of industry representatives. The public then had an hour to make statements—and every speaker opposed relaxing the media ownership rules. “What stood out most,” Copps commented afterward, “was the level of concern on the issue and the level of dissatisfaction.” Powell immediately announced that the Richmond hearing provided “enough” input from the public and that it was imperative to get the process completed as quickly as possible. “This is one of the most extensively developed records in the history of the commission,” Powell stated. You can hold hearings until “you’re blue in the face but at some point people expect you to take a position.” Powell, Abernathy, and Martin would not attend any of the subsequent public hearings on media ownership.

Over the next three months twelve more public hearings were held across the nation, almost all attended by Copps and many by Adelstein, who termed this their “magical mystery tour.” The events were always nonpartisan, organized by a local university or civic group, and featured representatives of the broadcasting industry. Numerous activists groups, like Jeff Chester’s Center for Digital Democracy and the Benton Foundation helped organize the events. There were also a number of smaller events, sometimes attended by Copps or Adelstein separately. In most cases, members of Congress from the area participated. Some events were attended by fewer than 200 people, as in Detroit, Chicago, and Phoenix, but most of the rest became standing-room-only affairs with 400–1,000 attendees, as in Seattle, Philadelphia, Burlington, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Even more than the turnout, it was the public’s comment that caught the attention of Copps and Adelstein and energized them as they squared off with Powell and the Republicans back at FCC headquarters. “Of the hundreds of citizens I heard from, many extremely articulate, not one of them stood up to say, ‘I want to see even more concentration in our media ownership.’ Not one,” Adelstein observed. “The public knows instinctively what the FCC is supposed to do—protect them from large entities gaining too much control over critical channels of communication.”

This attendance was all the more incredible because the local press gave little or no advance coverage and in most cases no follow-up coverage either—especially curious since local media often had executives on hearing panels. “That people even found out about these meetings,” Copps acknowledged, “is a miracle.” This pointed to a problem that faced the activists throughout 2003: the paucity of mainstream news coverage. As a study conducted for the American Journalism Review concluded, in the first five months of 2003, commercial TV and the cable networks offered “virtually no coverage” of the FCC deliberations on media ownership. Even the handful of newspapers that covered the story on occasion throughout the year, like the Chicago Tribune, “seemed to lose interest in the consumer and democracy angles, treating the story mainly as a business and investment issue.” As the author of the study concluded, “you wouldn’t have learned much about the controversy from the many news outlets that were eager to cash in.” Instead, the organizers had to rely upon alternative media and the Internet to do much of their outreach; one can only imagine what the response would have been had the conventional news media given this anything close to the attention that a story of such magnitude—but not involving the corporate media—would have merited.

Despite the mainstream news blackout, the movement grew rapidly. What happened to radio following the relaxation of radio ownership rules in the 1996 Telecommunications Act spurred Americans’ concern about media policies. Radio was often invoked as the “canary in the coal mine” that would predict what would happen when ownership rules for television, cable, and newspapers were relaxed. And the consensus about radio was almost universally negative. Local news had disappeared, musical variety had diminished, and commercialism had increased. “So television’s going to be more like radio now,” the TV critic Tom Shales mused in a column on Powell’s media ownership plans. “Gosh, that’s swell. Let’s have a little dancing in the streets, because this is no small accomplishment—finding a means to make TV worse, I mean.”

“If you really like what happened in radio,” Copps argued, “you’ll love what’s barreling down the FCC track toward you.” Or, as he told his colleagues, “this experience should terrify us.” As one reporter put it, “The sorry state of the radio industry is sabotaging FCC chairman Michael Powell’s plans to let media conglomerates run wild.” Much opposition to ownership relaxation in the African-American and minority communities could be attributed to the bad experience with radio, an industry that saw minority ownership collapse since 1996 and journalism for minority groups shrivel. Indeed, Powell acknowledged that radio was in crisis, but he refused to let its condition influence his evaluation of ownership rules changes for other media.

Another issue that mobilized citizens was the fate of journalism under media concentration. The FCC had ignored or mangled this topic in its study with its twelve reports; indeed, if one looked at who actually wrote or produced news in local markets, the effects of concentrated ownership on journalism would be apparent, as would the likely impact of further relaxation of ownership. A study released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in February 2003 concluded that larger TV station-owning companies used their market power to reduce their commitment to local journalism. Powell not only defended the status quo but also argued that increased media concentration would improve journalism: “Scale and efficiency are becoming more vital to delivering quality news and public affairs.” Not many shared Powell’s enthusiasm. Common Cause, the public interest citizens group, received so much concern from its several hundred thousand members about how concentrated media ownership would affect journalism and public life that it made fighting Powell its main organizing issue in 2003. Common Cause’s president, Chellie Pingree, remarked that she had never seen so much rank-and-file interest in an issue. Common Cause, which had never worked in media policy before, had suddenly become a media reform organization.

Even more striking was the opposition to the relaxation of media ownership rules that came from working journalists. Their ire certainly undercut Powell’s effort to wrap his media ownership plan in the guise of protecting the First Amendment. Those on the front lines saw what concentration had done to journalism and they did not want to see more of it. From the Columbia Journalism Review to avidly pro-deregulation trade publications such as Broadcasting & Cable, working journalists criticized relaxation of media ownership rules as bad for journalism. Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, detailed the pronounced concern over media concentration among her members. The guild and AFTRA, the union representing broadcast journalists, made stopping the relaxation of media ownership rules central to their lobbying work in 2003.

The National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists both came out against relaxing the rules. Working with the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, they were able to generate interest in this issue among members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus, which would prove valuable down the road. For what may have been the first time in its history, the International Federation of Journalists, representing 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries, weighed in on a U.S. media ownership policy matter, calling Powell’s plan “a dangerous shift of power at the expense of democracy.”

Journalists were not the only ones closely connected to the media industries who spoke out. All the Hollywood unions worked to oppose Powell and the FCC, in combination with most of the independent producers. “This is really unprecedented,” the president of the west coast branch of the Writers Guild of America noted. “It’s remarkable how this one issue seems to have captured the entire community.” Driven by the media unions, the AFL-CIO Executive Council formally opposed the relaxation of media ownership rules in March 2003. Even the Public Relations Society of America condemned Powell, and leading advertisers criticized media concentration. Numerous independent media owners such as Frank Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, stepped forward to fight against rule relaxation. Even the huge conglomerate Sony expressed concerns about concentration in the TV industry. The arguments invariably were that concentration produces lousier media content.

Powell and his supporters could rightly claim that much of this opposition within the media industries came from self-interested parties who had much to lose. But Powell’s entire base of support also came from self-interested parties with much to gain. And it hardly helped Powell’s cause that those on the inside of these industries, such as journalists, stated emphatically that concentration was bad for quality media content.

Left & Right Join the Fight

As impressive as this opposition to Powell looked, two additional developments generated what would be the lion’s share of the more than three million Americans who would formally oppose the relaxation of media ownership rules in 2003. First was the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. During the buildup to the war, in the first three months of 2003, the burgeoning antiwar movement spent considerable time castigating what it regarded as the uncritical and propagandistic nature of TV news coverage of the Bush administration’s war rationale. Phil Donahue’s program was terminated by MSNBC in February; its cancellation came in the wake of an internal NBC report claiming that Donahue projected a “difficult public face for NBC in time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush, and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The report worried that Donahue would become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Cable giant Comcast refused to air an antiwar ad during Bush’s State of the Union address.

The concentrated world of radio was seen as being particularly hostile to all who did not support the Bush administration. Clear Channel’s DJs led pro-war rallies, fired the South Carolina 2002 “Radio Personality of the Year” allegedly for her antiwar politics, and, along with fellow radio giant Cumulus, dropped the Dixie Chicks from its playlists after a member of the band criticized Bush at a concert in England. When activists learned that the same companies that seemed most aggressively pro-war—e.g., Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation—were leading the lobbying fight to acquire even more media, activists started publicizing the FCC issue. Around this time, Murdoch announced his intention to purchase DirecTV, the firm that dominated U.S. satellite television delivery.

When Powell praised the outstanding and “thrilling” TV news coverage of the Iraq war as justifying his contention that media concentration actually promotes better journalism, it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. (Copps, on the other hand, observed that TV news coverage of the war lacked “clash and a diversity of ideas.”) The liberal online activist group MoveOn.org was deluged with comments from many of its million plus members demanding that MoveOn organize to oppose Powell and the FCC. With its huge e-mail lists, MoveOn was able to generate hundreds of thousands of supporters for media reform during the course of 2003.

The second striking development was the emergence of conservative opposition to the relaxation of media ownership rules. Some of it grew from public distaste with the vulgarity of radio and television—what conservative media activist Brent Bozell termed “the raw sewage, the ultraviolence, the graphic sex, the raunchy language that is flooding their living rooms day and night.” This persistent lewdness was exacerbated by media concentration, because huge firms provided the cheapest fare possible and were unaccountable to local communities. Conservatives also disliked the decline of local ownership and localism in commercial media. “I am a conservative. I believe in free markets and limited government,” Representative Richard Burr of North Carolina said in explaining his opposition to Powell. “But I also believe in another important conservative ideal—the right of local citizens to influence decisions that impact their communities.”

The National Rifle Association shared these concerns—it regarded the big media conglomerates as unsympathetic to gun owners—and, at the urging of its membership, became an aggressive force against the FCC in the spring of 2003. The NRA generated several hundred thousand postcards in opposition to relaxing media ownership rules. People were astounded by the emerging alliance, with Jesse Helms in tandem with Jesse Jackson. “When all of us are united on an issue, then one of two things has happened,” Bozell observed. “Either the earth has spun off its axis and we have all lost our minds or there is universal support for a concept.”

As popular opposition grew, increased attention turned to what, exactly, the FCC was doing. Although Powell claimed he was too busy to attend any of the public hearings in the spring, he apparently was able to carve out time to attend major conferences of media owners. In his speech before the NAB in Las Vegas in April he dropped the role of the moderate pragmatist and technocrat and urged broadcasters to support “comprehensive deregulation of the broadcast industry.” Three weeks later, in Seattle, Powell told the nation’s newspaper owners that they were “likely to fare well” under his media ownership rule changes. “I could have written the speech myself,” CEO William Dean Singleton of MediaNews announced ecstatically.

Then, in May, a revealing report from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI) disclosed what Powell and FCC staffers had been doing most of the spring. Since the formal review of media rules had been announced in September 2002, FCC officials had held seventy-one closed-door, off-the-record meetings with corporate media CEOs and their lobbyists, but only five such meetings with public interest groups. Rupert Murdoch and Viacom’s Mel Karmazin had each had a series of meetings with commissioners and staffers in late January and early February, precisely when the FCC was crafting its new ownership rules. On March 11, a group of Disney executives met with eighteen different FCC officials in six different closed-door meetings. That was probably more contact than most consumer groups had had with the FCC in a decade.

The CPI also reported that corporate interests had lavished $2.8 million on FCC members for junkets over the previous eight years and that much of the data the FCC used to make its determinations of policy was provided by industry. Finally, on June 2, a Wall Street Journal investigative report disclosed that Bear Stearns media analyst Victor Miller, whose job is to advise large investors concerning media stocks, played a central role in helping the FCC draft the new ownership regulations. Michael Powell’s top aide, Susan Eid, defended Miller’s role: “His analysis is rock-solid.” (Before the end of 2003, Michael Powell’s chief of staff who helped craft the new ownership rules left the FCC to become a top lobbyist for the NAB.) As Charles Lewis, CPI’s director, concluded: “The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable.”

In February Powell had encouraged Americans to use the Internet to let the FCC know their thoughts on media ownership. In the past, on its most controversial issues, the FCC had received about 5,000 calls and letters. With interest picking up speed like a hurricane crossing the open sea, the number of e-mail messages, letters, and petition signatures reaching the FCC had climbed to an extraordinary 750,000 by the end of May. There was so much incoming e-mail that the FCC’s computers crashed. All examinations of the contents indicated that a good 99.9 percent opposed relaxing the media ownership rules, and many citizens favored tightening them. There was almost no indication that anyone in the country, aside from big media owners, strongly favored relaxing the rules.

When the CNN business program Moneyline with Lou Dobbs ran an on-air poll in May asking whether “too few corporations own too many media outlets,” fully 98 percent said yes. The city councils in Chicago and Seattle passed resolutions against the relaxation of media ownership rules—Chicago by a unanimous vote. What was most astonishing, as a Christian Science Monitor study determined, was that this resistance had developed with very little press coverage, especially for a story of this magnitude. Shamelessly, Powell boasted about the “extraordinary amount of public comment” the FCC had received, enabling it to address the issues “through the eyes and ears of the American public.” But no matter how Powell tried to spin it, he had decisively lost the battle for public opinion.

From the FCC to Congress

Throughout the spring as public attention was being drawn to the issue of media ownership, a sense of impending doom hung over the opposition since it was obvious that Powell was determined to ram the changes through. The counsel Powell was getting from the Bush administration fortified his resolve. In April, Commerce Secretary Don Evans informed Powell in no uncertain terms that the White House expected the ownership rules to be relaxed as planned and without delay. The Bush administration’s interest in delivering relaxed media ownership rules to the media giants could be explained by its ideological commitment to “deregulation.” It was possibly influenced as well by media corporations’ large political donations, especially toward Republicans. Certainly the Bush administration’s stance did nothing to discourage such donations.

In addition, the Bush administration counted some close political friends in the corporate media community. Some of the media firms most aggressively lobbying against the ownership rules were strong ideological allies. Clear Channel had a close relationship with Bush going back to his stint as Texas governor, and its stations were notorious for their pro-Republican slant. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel was similarly well-known as a bastion of Republican support; in October 2003, Charles Reina, who worked as a producer and writer at Fox News Channel from 1997 until he resigned in 2003, revealed that the station’s management gave daily directives on issues and angles to cover that tended to correlate with White House spin. Indeed, Roger Ailes, head of Fox News Channel, had offered advice to President Bush about how to react to the 9-11 attacks.

There were even suggestions in the trade press that the administration’s FCC stance was payback to the media for its treatment of Bush during the 2000 election and after, with an eye toward encouraging continued favorable coverage in the future. Generally soft media coverage extended beyond news reporting: In September 2003, Viacom’s Showtime aired a docudrama, DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, which portrayed George W. Bush as a cross between Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. Only two months later, Viacom’s CBS canceled a miniseries on Ronald Reagan when Republican critics charged it was unsympathetic; the station then passed a watered-down version to Showtime to fend off critics charging censorship. The Financial Times noted that News Corporation’s Fox News Channel hammered CBS on this issue and Viacom caved in exactly as the media ownership rules were in jeopardy on Capitol Hill. Even the rabidly antiregulation trade publication Broadcasting & Cable was appalled by CBS’s cave-in, paraphrasing Viacom’s position as “we’d better do what we’re told by the D.C. powers that be—in this case, the Republican National Committee—if we want to be able to buy more stations.”

While we may never know the Bush administration’s precise motives, it was clear that relaxation of media ownership rules had become a high priority. From its vantage point, supporting the media giants seemed to be a no-lose proposition.

On the opposing side, in the spring of 2003, activists intensified their pressure on Powell to disclose the proposed rules changes so that the public could provide input before the FCC vote. Even the trade publication Television Week urged Powell to “bring the public into the process.” “We don’t know what we’re going to be working on,” a frustrated Copps said in early May. “It’s like a state secret.” The new rules were finally turned over to Copps and Adelstein on May 12, exactly three weeks before the planned June 2 vote, the legal minimum notice. As expected, the rules called for eliminating the ban on cross-ownership, permitting companies to purchase two TV stations in most markets and three TV stations in the largest markets, and letting the biggest TV station-owning companies increase their market coverage from 35 percent to 45 percent of the population. Copps and Adelstein immediately asked for a delay of the vote, a “traditional right of commissioners,” which had never been denied in anyone’s memory. Powell rejected the request, citing counsel by Abernathy and Martin. Over Memorial Day weekend, for yet another first in U.S. media history, demonstrations protesting the FCC’s impending relaxation of media ownership rules took place in fourteen cities.

The outcome of the June 2 FCC meeting was a foregone conclusion, but the debate was far from anticlimactic. Copps and Adelstein each delivered long and meticulous dissenting statements that exposed the majority’s arguments to be baseless and the FCC’s review to be nothing short of fraudulent. As Adelstein put it, the review was a “results-driven process” in which principles were nonexistent and evidence was emphasized or ignored depending upon whether it justified the desired end. (When analysts for the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America were finally able to spend weeks inspecting the FCC’s 257-page order, the federation’s research director concluded, “The FCC cooked the books to come up with the result they wanted—and the books aren’t even half baked.”) Copps and Adelstein both were clearly moved by the outpouring of popular support during the process. “We’ll look back upon this 3-2 vote as a pyrrhic victory,” Copps concluded. “The Commission faces a far more informed and involved citizenry. The obscurity of the issue that many have relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood the issue, is gone forever.” Adelstein ended his statement by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “This is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but just the end of the beginning.”

Adelstein was more accurate than he may have realized. In all the commotion surrounding Powell and the FCC during the first half of 2003, Congress’s role had received little attention. In fact, the FCC is not a body like the Supreme Court, established to be independent of the legislative branch. To the contrary, the FCC was created by Congress, funded by Congress, and expected to fulfill the interests of the American people as specified by Congress. The court decision shifting the burden of proof to the FCC to justify the continuation of media ownership rules was predicated on that being the will of Congress. Powell acknowledged at all times that if Congress was dissatisfied with the FCC’s actions, all it had to do was pass legislation instructing him to do something else.

Under normal circumstances, Congress would be unlikely to pester the FCC to act against powerful media interests, due to the media industry’s massive lobbies, control over the news, and hefty campaign contributions. But these were not normal circumstances. Even if Bush’s FCC appointees Powell, Abernathy, and Martin could afford to ignore the input of 750,000 Americans, members of Congress had to pay closer attention to their constituents. And Congress was getting the message. Two days after the FCC vote, the Senate Commerce Committee called all five FCC commissioners to the Hill to explain the vote and spewed unbridled contempt. “We are moving to roll back one of the most complete cave-ins to corporate interests I’ve ever seen by what is supposed to be a federal regulatory agency,” Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota declared. Ranking Democrat Ernest Hollings of South Carolina accused Powell of “spin and fraud” and slammed the FCC as an “instrument of corporate greed.”

A few days later, Republican committee chairman John McCain remarked that the media ownership issue had “sparked more interest than any issue I’ve ever seen that wasn’t organized by a huge lobby.” A handful of conservative Republicans such as Trent Lott and Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia came out strongly against the FCC changes, despite pressure from on high. “I did not get elected to be a potted plant,” Wolf asserted, “and I don’t care what the White House thinks.” “In all the years I’ve been here,” California senator Barbara Boxer observed, “I’ve not seen such deeply held feelings across ideologies.” “It’s an issue that has huge momentum,” McCain concurred. “It’s a classic populist issue.” The politicians with their fingers firmly on the national pulse, the nine candidates campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, all came out strongly against Powell and the FCC. By the end of June the Senate Commerce Committee, with significant Republican support, voted to overturn key elements of the FCC rule changes. The vote shocked the political establishment and demonstrated that the issue was in play on the Hill.

Public opinion research confirmed what members of Congress were sensing. A Pew Research Center Poll conducted in summer 2003 found that the number of Americans who had heard “a lot” or “a little” about the FCC’s review of media ownership rules had doubled to nearly 50 percent since February. Most striking, the figures showed dramatically that the more people knew about what the FCC was doing, the less likely they were to support it. Of those 12 percent of Americans who had “heard a lot,” seven in ten believed that the effects of relaxing media ownership rules would be negative, while only 6 percent thought they would be positive.

By now Powell and the commercial media had quit suggesting that rule relaxation had popular support. To the contrary, they started arguing that most Americans were apathetic and that apathy should be interpreted as support for the status quo. Powell asserted that he represented the “silent majority” of Americans, those who “yawn at the whole thing.” His constituency was made up of those who “are in a fraternity watching TV and drinking beer and happy” and oblivious to the debate. Powell presented a contradictory stance: he announced that support for his ownership plan was minuscule only because the public debate had been “lopsided” against him—yet he had done everything possible to avoid public debate because, as surveys showed, the more people knew, the more ground he lost. His strategy, as he tacitly acknowledged, was to keep people ignorant—the FCC’s modus operandi—so he could then claim their support for whatever he did.

The poll energized activists, who knew that the more people learned about the issue and the more members of Congress heard from their constituents, the more likely Congress could be persuaded to overturn what the FCC had done. Russ Feingold related that on a trip home to Wisconsin, the popular opposition to the FCC overwhelmed him. “When they heard that these rules came out,” Feingold recalled, “They were angry.” For the balance of the summer and fall, activist attention went toward generating more public pressure upon members of Congress. On Capitol Hill, a wide range of public interest groups conducted the lobbying effort, led by Consumers Union, Free Press, Common Cause, MoveOn.org, and organized labor. On numerous occasions MoveOn.org used its vast subscriber list to generate petition signatures and telephone calls by constituents to Congress. In one afternoon alone, House members received an estimated 40,000 dissenting telephone calls from constituents. As Democratic Representative David Price of North Carolina put it, his colleagues were saying, “Call off the dogs, my office is being flooded with constituent calls on this issue.” By the calculation of FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, over 2.3 million comments registering opposition to media concentration were made to either the FCC or Congress by the end of the summer.

The problem facing opponents of the FCC ownership plan was getting legislation through Congress. Despite having a clear majority of members of Congress opposing the FCC, White House pressure and the Republican leadership were able to keep the measure from coming to the floor of Congress for a vote. Although the matter remains alive until the 2004 elections produce a new Congress, the outlook on Capitol Hill is not especially bright. For media activists across the nation it seemed like the fix was in. Big money rigged the system to foil the will of the people.

But all was not lost, not at all. The activist group, Media Access Project, filed a petition with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, on behalf of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, arguing that the media ownership rule changes violated federal statutes and were generated improperly. To get the case out of the dreaded Washington, D.C. court of appeals, activists had filed lawsuits in federal courts around the country. When all the cases were consolidated, a lottery was used to pick a federal appeals court to adjudicate. The D.C. court had three-to-one odds stacked against it, and Philadelphia won. Even so, winning the case was regarded as a long shot, but on September 3 the court agreed to hear the case. More important, the court issued an immediate stay so that the rule changes would not be put into effect. “The harm to petitioners absent a stay would be the likely loss of an adequate remedy should the new ownership rules be declared invalid in whole or in part,” the court wrote. “In contrast to this irreparable harm, there is little indication that a stay pending appeal will result in substantial harm to the commission or to other interested parties.”

Copps was satisfied by the turn of events: “The court has done what the commission should have done in the first place.” As the New York Times noted, “The court raised tough questions for the commission and its industry supporters” that suggested the future could not be predicted. Although the case would not be settled until sometime in 2004, it constituted an enormous victory for opponents of media concentration. It bought time to work the halls of Congress to get the FCC’s rules overturned before they could go into effect.

Epilogue: The Hardest Battle Has Been Won

Regardless of the outcome of the media ownership fight of 2003, the episode was a remarkable and unprecedented moment in U.S. media history. For the first time in generations, media policy issues were taken from behind closed doors and made the stuff of democratic discourse and political engagement. The change in climate since 1996—when the corrupt Telecommunications Act had been drafted, debated, and passed in almost total silence—could not have been more dramatic. Most incredible of all, in January 2003 nobody anticipated this transformation.

It remains to be seen where, exactly, this movement is going. By the beginning of 2004, the meager mainstream news coverage had disappeared, and there were considerable pressures to have the issue return to backrooms with a billion dollar ante for admission. But there was no reason to think public opinion had shifted back. In December, CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight ran another informal poll on the question “Do you agree big media companies should be broken up?” Over 96 percent of the 5,000 plus respondents said yes.

As the dust clears, we can see that the fight that galvanized the nation in 2003 was a defensive one; even if it had been successful, it still left the media system where it had been on June 1, 2003. For most Americans involved, it was the severe problems with the existing media system that drove them to organize to keep matters from getting worse—so it was predicated on a belief that the status quo is no longer acceptable. The challenge for those who support democratic media policy making, and a democratic solution to the problem of the media, is to harness this energy and not allow it to dissipate. But the most important struggle is simply to convince people that the media are political forces that can be shaped, not natural ones that must be endured. Once people grasp that, as they did in 2003, the possibilities for change and for democracy suddenly become much greater. With this in mind, people can also see how much of the status quo’s power lies in keeping them ignorant of their basic democratic rights and responsibilities.

Whether the United States is approaching a critical juncture with regard to media policy making is yet to be seen. That will depend on the ability of the media reform movement to connect with many other organized political forces in the nation—for example, labor, civil rights, feminism, environmentalism—and draw them deeper into the battle. These groups need to understand that as long as the media system remains as it is, the prospects for viable social change are limited. Media reform and campaigns for social justice are inexorably linked.

In November 2003 the first National Conference on Media Reform was held in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference organizers expected a turnout of two hundred when the conference was originally proposed in December 2002. Eleven months later it drew nearly two thousand people from all over the nation. It is amazing what a little political success does to a movement’s self-confidence and ambitions. Media reform has gone from being an abstract issue with no sex appeal to one that is downright populist. It cuts across the political spectrum. It allows for incremental victories—unlike, say, campaign finance, for which any piecemeal reform invariably leaves destructive loopholes. It can draw in allies for help on specific measures, even though they might not support others. It is politically flexible.

A whole cohort of media activist groups entered 2004 energized. They drew up media reform proposals that were proactive, and not merely defensive, and that covered a broad range of issues. I do not mean to exaggerate the position we are in today; many will argue that the power of organized money will overwhelm efforts to organize people. We have a very long way to go. But the very hardest battle has been won. Media reform is now thinkable. Nothing will ever be the same again.