Do you want one billionaire -- perhaps Fox News' Rupert Murdoch -- dictating what you read in Creative Loafing? And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution? And most of the other magazines and community newspapers in Atlanta? And what you watch on local TV channels, not to mention cable and satellite? And radio?
Could you stomach that steady diet of sleaze? If the thought mortifies you, beware of what's happening at the Federal Communications Commission.
Proposed FCC rule changes would balloon the value of Cox Enterprises-owned media in Atlanta – the Journal-Constitution, WSB-TV and five radio stations. That, in turn, would make Cox's Atlanta holdings attractive to potential buyers, although Jay Smith, the president of Cox Newspapers, says any talk of an actual deal is "dead wrong," "moot" and "speculative."
Four years ago, 3 million Americans – bridging the political spectrum from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women – protested a scheme by media giants to squash what's left of independent voices in the media. Atlanta media activists – appalled at the dominance of the city's Coxopoly – helped lead the national movement.
Despite the protests, the FCC voted to lift virtually all constraints on the number of TV and radio stations companies can own. The change ended a ban in place since 1974 on newspapers' "cross-ownership" of TV stations in the same city. (When enacted, that rule wasn't retroactive, which allowed the continuation of Cox's ownership of the then Constitution, Journal and WSB television and radio stations.)
A federal appeals court and an angry Congress eventually overturned the FCC. A new George Bush-appointed FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, has announced plans to give the media moguls what they crave. He wants to do it fast, by Dec. 18, before America notices the grand theft of its public airwaves.
It's an issue that strikes at the heart of freedom of speech.
"One of the challenges we face as a nation is having an informed public," says Heather Gray, chairwoman of WRFG-FM (89.3), a nonprofit station that's one of the few radio-dial respites in Atlanta from the steady spewing of right-wing and hate broadcasting by stations such as Cox's WSB-AM (750). "You need to have many voices to guarantee democracy and the free flow of information. That's why we protested four years ago. Now we have to have the same fight again. That's an outrage."
The FCC's Martin is carrying water for two huge media empires. The Tribune Co. – which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, nine other newspapers and 23 television stations – is being acquired by real-estate tycoon Sam Zell.
And Rupert Murdoch, potentate of News Corp. and Fox, is purchasing Dow Jones & Co., owner of the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch already owns the New York Post and WNYW-TV under a temporary waiver.
The stakes are high for both of them. The FCC could intervene to stop Murdoch's purchase of the Wall Street Journal. And the Tribune Co. has temporary waivers to operate newspapers and TV stations in several cities. Under current rules, those waivers would end with a new owner.
And why is that important in Atlanta? "If new owners bought the Atlanta newspapers or the stations, they'd have to give up cross-ownership under current rules," says Rick Chessen, legal adviser to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Of the five FCC commissioners, only the two Democrats – Copps and Jonathan Adelstein – have resisted lifting the ownership restraints.
Major media companies have aggressively lobbied for the rules change in Washington. Cox alone has spent $3.4 million in the last decade, the 10th largest spender among TV-station owners in plying Congress and regulators with cash. Yet Cox has never disclosed that it has a horse in the race. In fact, the AJC has never even printed the name of the company's chief lobbyist, Kevin Reed.
In 2003, the AJC was mute on the FCC changes until it was too late for citizens to make comments to the regulatory agency. The paper's then No. 2 editor, Hank Klibanoff, told me "there was no conspiracy." Yet the AJC and WSB had reporters at a huge public meeting at Emory University on the issue, and reported nothing.
Despite that, Cox's Smith says, "I know of no newspaper that does a better job than the AJC does of making these matters known." However, unlike the AJC, other newspapers – such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune – have made their self-interest clear in their news reports.
In this round, the AJC has published three short items, all buried deep in the business section. One dealt with concerns of the music industry and a second with congressional skepticism. The third recounted public protests – but as in 2003, it came after the last opportunity for public comment. None of the articles mentioned how the rule changes might impact Cox itself.
According to a senior Cox business executive who asked for anonymity, the company is focused on the rapidly changing media landscape. It could hope to acquire TV stations in markets where it has newspapers – or maximize the value of its Atlanta flagship holdings should a buyer come calling. The most voracious of the media conglomerates is Murdoch.
Chessen says that when a federal court ruled against the 2003 changes, one reason was the lack of evidence to justify the changes. The FCC launched new studies, but a year ago it was disclosed that the agency had suppressed information that showed, among other things, consolidation reduces the amount of news broadcast by TV stations.
"They're doing it again," Chessen says. "They've put out the new studies before they've undergone peer review. We don't even have the actual proposed rule changes. The chairman (Martin) says he wants to finish this in a month, but I don't think it can possibly happen."
Let's hope so. Just don't look for the news in the AJC.
Full disclosure: Cox owned 25 percent of CL for about four years until our board determined Cox had used its position to undermine us. We subsequently bought back our stock in 2004.
Read more about the FCC's proposed media consolidation rules at the following links:
The FCC explanation of the rule changes is at http://www.fcc.gov/ownership/studies.html
If you want to stop Big Media, go to http://www.stopbigmedia.com/
Consumers Union has good background at: http://www.hearusnow.org/mediaownership/
So does Common Cause: http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=192086
Play "Whack-a-Murdoch" at: http://www.whackamurdoch.com/
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