1. FCC Moves to Privatize Airwaves

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on


London Guardian
April 28, 20001
Media File
Autumn 2001 volume 20, #4
Title: “Global Media Giants Lobby to Privatize Entire Broadcast System”
Author: Jeremy Rifkin

Mother Jones
Sept/October 2001
Title: “Losing Signal”
Author: Brendan l. Koerner

Media File
May/June 2001
Title: “Legal Project to Challenge Media Monopoly”
Author: Dorothy Kidd

Faculty evaluators: Scott Gordon
Student Researchers: Laura Huntington

For almost 70 years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has administered and regulated the broadcast spectrum as an electronic “commons” on behalf of the American people. The FCC issues licenses to broadcasters that allow them, for a fee, to use, but not own, one or more specific radio or TV frequencies. Thus, the public has retained the ability to regulate, as well as influence, access to broadcast communications.

Several years ago, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, in their report “The Telecom Revolution: An American Opportunity,” recommended a complete privatization of the radio frequencies, whereby broadcasters with existing licenses would eventually gain complete ownership of their respective frequencies. They could thereafter develop them in markets of their choosing, or sell and trade them to other companies. The few non-allocated bands of the radio frequency spectrum would be sold off, as electronic real estate, to the highest bidders. With nothing then to regulate, the FCC would eventually be abolished. The reasoning behind this radical plan was that government control of the airwaves has led to inefficiencies. In private hands, the frequencies would be exchanged in the marketplace, and the forces of free-market supply and demand would foster the most creative (and, of course, most profitable) use of these electronic “properties.”

This privatization proposal was considered too ambitious by the Clinton administration. However, in February 2001, within months after a more “pro-business” president took office, 37 leading US economists requested, in a joint letter, that the FCC allow broadcasters to lease, in secondary markets, the frequencies they currently use under their FCC license. Their thinking was that with this groundwork laid, full national privatization would follow, and eventually nations would be encouraged to sell off their frequencies to global media enterprises.

Michael K. Powell, FCC Chairman, and son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a recent speech compared the FCC to the Grinch, a kind of regulatory spoilsport that could impede what he termed a historic transformation akin to the opening of the West. “The oppressor here is regulation,” he declared. In April 2001, Powell dismissed the FCC’s historic mandate to evaluate corporate actions based on the public interest. That standard, he said, “is about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency.” In other comments, Powell has signaled what kind of philosophy he prefers to the outdated concept of public interest. During his first visit to Capitol Hill as chairman, Powell referred to corporations simply as “our clients.”

Challenges to this proposed privatization of airways have emerged from a number of sources. One group, the Democratic Media Legal Project (DMLP) in San Francisco, argues that even the existing commercial media system, aided by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is unconstitutional because it limits diversity of viewpoints, omits or misrepresents most social, political, and cultural segments, and is unaccountable to the public. Therefore, explains DMLP, advertising-based media and the 1996 Act, which encourages mergers and cross-ownership of media outlets to the exclusion of the vast majority of people, have deprived the people of their right to self-governance- as self governance can occur only when we have the unimpeded and uncensored flow of opinion and reporting that are requisite for an informed democracy.

The course of wireless broadcasting is approaching an unprecedented and critical crossroad. The path taken by the United States, and by the other industrialized nations that may follow our lead, will profoundly influence the ability of the citizenry of each country to democratically control the media.

COMMENTS BY SCOTT GORDON, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF COMPUTER SCIENCE, SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: During my 6 or 7 years of involvement with Project Censored, I have reviewed several dozen stories. Most of the stories sent to me have related to computers, communications, or other technical topics, presumably because of my Computer Science background. Often I find that such studies contain technical misinterpretation, confusion, or are simply old news to me. This was the first one to strike me as clearly deserving of consideration as a top “Censored” story.

It is frustrating to watch an expanding technology deliver hundreds of additional channels to our homes, promising diversity and expanded access, yet somehow result in a greater homogeneity than ever before. Our nation faces a virtual crisis of information flow, where corporate mergers reduce our popular voice to but a handful of media goliaths. Now more than ever, we need a strong FCC to ensure that one of our most core American values, freedom of the press, is maintained.

I had not heard of this scary proposal until I read about it for the Project. Hopefully, more people will see it for the fundamentally un-American idea that it is.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR BRENDAN KOERNER: As part of the mind-numbing alphabet soup of Beltway agencies, the Federal Communications Commission rarely receives much attention from the mainstream press. To Joe Q. Public, the FCC is still best known for harassing George Carlin over his infamous “Seven Dirty Words” routine. Beyond that, the commission is pretty much a mystery.

But the Information Age has converted the once-moribund FCC into a bureaucratic powerhouse. The commission oversees an infrastructure of airwaves, telephone lines, and cable conduits that are the backbone of a $950 billion-a-year industry. As the financial stakes have risen, the private-sector lobbyists have become increasingly adept at peddling their pro-business agenda to the FCC. And the Bush-appointed commission, led by Beltway scion Michael K. Powell, is eager to acquiesce-a sad trend chronicled in “Losing Signal.”

Since the article’s publication last summer, the FCC has proven itself adept at demolishing regulations intended to insure diversity and fairness. The commission’s willingness to approve long-distance applications from the “Baby Bell” phone companies, for instance, virtually guarantees the return of regional telco monopolies.

Yet the mainstream press has raised few warnings about the FCC’s squashing of the public interest. Quite the opposite, in fact-business sections cheer the consolidation as a sign of robust economic health, and pooh-pooh concerns over diversity as alarmism.

There are few communications activists, at least compared to the legions of lawyers and lobbyists retained by Big Media and Big Telco. The most prominent muckrakers are Jeff Chester at the Center for Digital Democracy (democraticmedia.org), the folks at the Media Access Project (mediaaccess.org), and the Project on Media Ownership (promo.org). But without more public support, they’re bound to have a tough time taking on the FCC.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR DOROTHY KIDD: Since this story was written, things have just gotten worse for the US public with regards to media democracy. Mergers are up and the number of dominant players controlling media production and distribution has shrunk to a handful. At the same time, almost all the federal government regulations that had limited monopoly, or had ensured a small measure of public service programming, have been abolished.

There are now few checks and balances to a corporate media system that is run solely for profit, permits very little diversity of programming, and considers important news of public concern just one more commercial-driven form of entertainment. As a result, the media system has curbed the rights of citizens to receive and produce the information and communication necessary for free debate in a democratic society.

The Legal Project, established to challenge the corporate media system, is now securing the funding and organization necessary to launch a protracted struggle in the courts, through the legislatures and among the public.

The mainstream media covered some of the economic and political aspects of these two trends. However, there was little or no mainstream coverage of any organized public response, very little discussion of the public implications, and no coverage of the Legal Project.

The story of the Legal Project is important because it represents a significant contribution to the growing media democracy movement. It calls the government and media corporations to task, arguing that the commercial media system is in violation of the First Amendment as it hinders the free exchange of a diversity of information and dialogue necessary to a democratic society.

You can get more information about the Legal Project from the Democratic Media Legal Project Web-site, at http://www.dmlp@igc.org/