Incredible shrinking media

by Ramzy Baroud

SEATTLE — As you flip through a range of channels on your TV or browse through a stack of newspapers and magazines at a newsstand, you may feel lucky to live in a world where such a plethora of viewpoints is available. It might also seem that the apparent increase in media choices also increases the chances for the public interest to be understood and served fairly. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. The media world is shrinking by the day.

Welcome to 2010.

The coming year could be one of major media consolidation. Predictions regarding mergers of media companies are somewhat frightening.

In his Los Angeles Times article “2010 predictions: Another turbulent year ahead for media,” Joe Flint determines that the debate in the media world “over which is king — content or distribution” was settled in 2009. As a result, a new wave of mergers is likely to follow. Giant media will guzzle other giant media, which had already swallowed less enormous media companies.

When the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, made his famous assertion that “the only security of all is in a free press,” he hardly had media consolidation in mind.

Giant media companies reflect the giant, albeit specific business interests of their owners and their advertisers. Neither News Corp. nor Viacom are dedicating their services to serving the public. Such companies are dedicated only to financial growth, even at the expense of what matters to the majority of their consumers. While media companies proudly propagate the value of democracy, they are neither democratic nor representative.

How will democracy, mass participation or public interest be served by Comcast Corp.’s purchase of NBC’s Universal, or Disney Co.’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc. The media industry has turned into a jungle where the survival of the fittest is determined not by value of content, or by contribution to society, but by “smart” business deals that ensure survival in an increasingly demanding media market.

Regardless of whether the Federal Communications Commission has lived up to its mandate (established in 1934 to operate for the benefit of “public convenience, interest or necessity”), the fact remains that the FCC is now part of the incessant efforts aimed at concentrating the ownership of the media in fewer hands.

“Get ready for a flood of media consolidation deals,” Ira Teinowitz wrote in theWrap.com.

The reason is simple, but requires a short detour. In the mid 1990s, the FCC began relaxing its regulations on media ownership. In 1996 a process of “deregulation” led to a wave of mergers, as thousands of radio stations were sold to a few larger companies, and TV ownership became more concentrated than ever before. In 2003, the FCC once again moved to deregulate U.S. laws regarding media, and this time the new media ownership laws targeted local media across the United States.

Fortunately, a U.S. court moved in to thwart the FCC’s concessions that seemed to mainly serve large media conglomerates. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit’s decision is being challenged once more.

The economic recession in the U.S. has hit many newspapers hard. One hundred and fifty newspapers have either gone out of business altogether or are now online, the Seattle PI and Christian Science Monitor among them. Thousands of media outlets across the U.S. are barely breaking even and many are struggling to come up with a viable business model, with little hope on the horizon.

The time is ripe for media vultures to make their move. The court blocked the FCC’s attempt in 2003 to change the rules of ownership; now it is reconsidering that decision. “A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which had put the stay in effect, ordered the FCC and consumer groups to ‘show cause’ (by the middle of this month) why the stay should not be dropped.”

If the rules are reversed, mergers and further media consolidation will affect the top 20 U.S. markets. Knowing what we know about the history of encroachment of large media companies, we can only guess that this is just the beginning of further concentration of media ownership, and subsequently the stifling of freedom of expression for most people, especially those whose opinion is not consistent with the business, political or ideological interests of media owners and their benefactors.

This trend is not confined to the U.S. The economic recession is global and giant media companies are not operating within specific geographic boundaries.

“The Spanish media sector saw the start of a wave of consolidation amid signs that at least two of them were close to announcing a tieup,” reported the Financial Times on Dec. 17. This story is being repeated in various countries. Moreover, consolidation is felt in all media sectors including film and music.

The continuation of this trend is terrible news for public interest, civil society and democracy as a whole. We must resist the shameless efforts of the few at owning everything we see, hear and read. When all the influences that shape our views of our surroundings and the world at large are owned, the public will eventually be forced to surrender its very self-definition.

Yes, even the way we define ourselves will ultimately be determined by a billionaire in some penthouse, who makes his wealth selling us packaged lies as news and trash as entertainment.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book, “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London), is available at Amazon.com.