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Who Owns New York's News?

by Joanna Erenberg and Ian Manheimer, Aug 02, 2004
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Days after September 11th, 2001, Clear Channel Communications, America's largest radio conglomerate, which owns five radios stations in New York and over 1,200 nationwide, released a memo listing 150 songs that it felt were in "bad taste" to play on the radio. The songs included everything from Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" to John Lennon's "Imagine."

It has been widely debated whether the memo was official guideline for all stations, but many believe that the Texas-based management - which has ties to the Republican Party - wanted to censor the airwaves.

The concentrated ownership of the media makes this possible. And even though New Yorkers are in a better situation than most other places of the country – we have, for instance, eight local daily newspapers in Spanish and English owned by six different companies – media consolidation gives a small group of people huge influence over what we see and hear.

In July, Clear Channel again used its clout in an attempt to stop New Yorkers from getting certain messages, when it tried to block an antiwar group from renting advertising space in Times Square during the Republican National Convention.

Shrinking Choices, Silenced Voices

But Clear Channel is not the only monster conglomerate that is changing the choices for the public. Since 1983, the fifty corporations that dominated the American media market have become ten corporations, the consolidation reaching a kind of apogee when AOL and Time Warner joined together in the largest media merger in history, a corporation valued at $350 billion.

These mergers occurred thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Congress passed in the belief that the radio industry would thrive with less regulation. The new law increased how many American media outlets any one company could own or operate, while retaining certain limits.

But in the first five years after the bill's passage, 9,000 out of 10,000 existing radio stations nationwide were sold at least once, according to research by Common Cause (where we work). The result? An array of voices and choices in large markets across the nation were soon silenced or curtailed.

"In New York City, the top four companies control 80 percent of the [radio] market," says Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition. The top ten rated FM stations in New York City are owned by four companies: Clear Channel Communications, Emmis Communications, Spanish Broadcasting System, and Viacom. Radio station WEVD, was sold in 2001 to the Walt Disney Company media conglomerate, and the local, independent, multi-lingual station was reformatted into just another outlet for the sports network ESPN Radio.

In June of 2003, the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates all sources of American communications, issued new regulations that loosened many of the ownership caps established in the Telecommunications Act. Under the new regulations, a single corporation could own television stations reaching up to 45 percent of American households nationwide; cross-ownership rules were changed so that a company could own newspapers, radio and television stations in the same market.

The rule changes were opposed from all ends of the political spectrum. Groups from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women saw the control of media by just a few voice as a fundamental threat to the diversity and localism of viewpoints necessary for democracy. The Federal Communications Commission was flooded with over 2 million communications from concerned Americans – more than they had received for any other issue.

Despite the outcry, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell stood by the decision. The matter was taken up in Congress and the courts, and continues to be fought today.

BOTTOM LINE JOURNALISM

The growth of media conglomerates has created a highly competitive and cut-throat industry where business economics plays an increasingly large role in production and even editorial decisions. Companies, searching to cut costs and meet revenue goals, have been using standard corporate business models to alter the behind the scenes production of their press, while trying to find ways to appeal to the broadest possible audiences. Journalists' jobs and responsibilities have been rapidly changing in what is a drastically different industry than the locally owned and operated business structure of broadcasts past.

"In the last twenty years, rigorous issues-oriented journalism has been under continued attack by large commercial interests seeking to streamline operations, tighten payroll, control more outlets, deregulate the industry and, ultimately, fatten their bottom line," said Timothy Karr, executive director of MediaChannel.org. "The net negative result is a news industry that avoids politically sensitive topics in favor of cheaply available entertainment, trivia and ‘lifestyle' reporting."

Indeed, a recent poll found that some two-thirds of working journalists believe that "bottom line pressure is ‘seriously hurting' the quality of news coverage." A majority of their bosses disagreed that the changes were undermining quality. It is difficult to conclude otherwise, though, when given examples such as New York's Channel 9, which Rupert Murdoch's company News Corp. purchased in 2002. The newsroom for the station was combined with that of another Murdoch property, Fox Channel 5, both stations' newscasts now overseen by a single news director -- and 65 jobs eliminated.

NEW YORKERS OWN THE AIRWAVES

Opponents of further media consolidation see hope in educating the public about the fact that the American people, and not corporate conglomerates, actually own the airwaves. The broadcast airwaves are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to companies for free, in exchange for their promise to provide programming and content that serves the public's best interest.

In 2001, it was estimated that if the airwaves used by the broadcasters were actually sold at auction to corporations – which has been a common practice with other technologies – it would have brought in $367 billion to the public treasury.

"Broadcasters cannot have it one way -- receive special treatment from the government -- but give nothing in return," said Karr. "With the outcry in 2003, the public sent Big Media and the FCC a loud message. The media industry can no longer put profits before its duty to serve citizens in a democracy. The media reform movement is now well mobilized to ensure that the FCC weighs the public's best interests before handing out more to media corporations."

Joanna Erenberg works on issues of media consolidation in New York as special projects coordinator for Common Cause/NY, where Ian Manheim is an intern.




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