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Every warm-blooded American knows the pleasure of collapsing in front of the warm glow of the television. I do it; you do it; and so does Michael K. Powell, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who, in an interview for The New York Times last Sunday, told reporters about the vast amount of TV he and his family watch. Citing several programs from “Dexter’s Laboratory” to “SpongeBob SquarePants” and his chronic use of TiVo, Powell claims, “we’re the kind of house that if I’m home working, the TV’s on.” Well, I suppose it should be comforting that someone with such vital influence over media regulation—and, ergo, influence over our increasingly television-dependent society—is so in-touch with his duties as a mass media consumer, even if it’s while he’s working.
However, what hasn’t proved comforting to a shocking array of bipartisan camps is Powell’s crusade to abolish current media regulations, allowing a handful of media conglomerates to snatch up more newspapers, radio stations, and local television networks. And “shocking array” may be putting it mildly as Powell’s opposition truly runs the gamut—how often do you find the National Rifle Association commiserating with the National Organization for Women, or a dozen Republicans defecting from the party over an issue President Bush supports so strongly? Well, I’d say, not often enough.
But maybe this peculiar mix shares my own vivid nightmares of this deregulation disaster. Imagine this horrific vision. A mammoth Fox News permeating the airwaves in every locality across the nation armed with an ensemble that includes the likes of Ann Coulter—the ultraconservative fabulist whose musings have won her the denunciation from many in her own party; Rush Limbaugh—the corpulent, outrageous personality who, luckily, is confined to pandering to the American public via radio waves; and maybe even Rupert Murdoch himself—the owner of this notoriously biased conglomerate who stands to be a great beneficiary of relaxed media regulations—playing himself as media-mogul-turned-right-wing-televangelist. The repercussions of such a team would probably prove fatal to intelligence in all its forms.
Now, of course this tragedy is an exaggeration—we hope—employed only to illustrate what could result from ever more expansive media ownership; but, as the FCC’s deregulatory policy allows one company to own three television stations, eight radio stations and a cable operator in one market, reality may not be too far from this terrifying TV lineup.
But, despite Bush’s steadfast support of Michael Powell, proclaiming that the FCC’s policy “will improve the quality of local news and support free over-the-air broadcast television,” many have seen through Bush’s usual rhetorical wiles. Conservative columnist William Safire recently corrected Bush’s “free TV” notion, pointing out that “four-fifths of broadcast network TV is now delivered to homes by cable or satellite—not free—and NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox are making money hand over fist,” not to mention the muddy logic of how an impersonal media conglomerate will improve the quality of local news.
Alas, maybe all hope’s not lost. In a move that defied Bush’s explicit wishes, the Republican-controlled Senate voted last week to eradicate the FCC’s June-adopted policy that allows media giants more control over the public’s source of news. As much as Bush and his cohorts have tried to downplay this blatant concession to big media buddies—Fox hardly runs a closet campaign for Bush and right-wing credo—the implications of deregulation are troubling enough to mobilize both Left and Right.
Aside from the possibility of a despotic media mogul swaying the minds of an unassuming American public, perhaps the most real and inevitable effect of increased media consolidation is that it stifles what little diversity and objectivity remains in our politically-charged media today.
But, perhaps Bush can still pull this one out. Though more than a million complaints have been filed to stop the FCC’s deregulation, the resolution may never make it to the House. And in an interview on Monday, Bush, sticking to his guns, again declared full support of Powell’s plan. The interview was broadcasted on—appropriately—Fox News.
—Morgan R. Grice is an editorial editor.
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