Broadcasting and Democracy: Oil and Water
Is it really possible for broadcasting and democracy to mix?
In theory, yes. But right now, the prospects look bleak. Most Americans live in areas where just a few media conglomerates dominate. Overall, what's on the airwaves is more like centralized monotony than democratic discourse.
Over 4,000 commercial radio stations have been sold since the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law. Radio mergers occur almost every day. The major media firms keep getting larger in size and fewer in number.
For three years, we've had no national limits on how many radio stations a single corporation can own. In a big city, eight radio stations can belong to the same firm. And the Federal Communications Commission just ruled that one company can own two television stations in the same city.
Media moguls are thrilled about the new ruling. The owner of the PAX TV network, Lowell Paxson, told a reporter: "I can't wait to have a glass of champagne and toast the FCC!" And so it goes. Lobbyists for broadcasting firms continue to prevail.
Causes of deregulation mania are similar to its effects: Democracy has very little to do with what's on the air. The last thing we're likely to hear on networks owned by General Electric (NBC), Westinghouse (CBS) or Disney (ABC) is in-depth debate about the wisdom of surrendering the nation's airwaves to unabashed profiteers.
Millions of Americans, eager for news coverage, depend on "noncommercial" stations. But National Public Radio affiliates, like their TV counterparts with ties to PBS, are so corporatized by now that the public has little voice -- even at stations that call themselves "listener supported."
Actually, there's a direct connection between how a station is governed and what it airs. When decision-making is insulated from real public participation, the bottom-line priorities that emerge are predictable -- and audible.
Meanwhile, the public's designated role in "public broadcasting" is usually confined to sending in money, as if democratic processes would undermine broadcast outlets. But some community stations around the country (such as KBOO Radio in Portland, Ore.) have proven that "democratic media" need not be an oxymoron.
In this context, a key battle is continuing in the San Francisco area as thousands of KPFA Radio supporters struggle to protect their station against its owner, the Pacifica Foundation (which also owns noncommercial radio stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington). Pacifica has yet to apologize for its indefensible actions during the past few months -- including repeated attempts to throttle the free speech of KPFA journalists, placement of armed guards inside the station to harass and intimidate staff, cutting off a newscast in mid-sentence on July 13, ordering the arrests of KPFA journalists in their own workplace and then locking out all of the station's employees.
The lockout lasted 23 days, until Aug. 5 -- nearly a week after 10,000 station supporters marched through the streets of Berkeley. The situation remains dire. Pacifica's national board chair, Mary Frances Berry, has denied the well-documented truth that the board considered a proposal last month to sell KPFA's frequency.
In Northern California, the enormous support for KPFA throughout the region is a historic instance of grassroots activism on behalf of community radio. KPFA's battle with Pacifica is a struggle for democratic possibilities at a time of rampant go-along-to-get-along homogenization and centralization.
For anyone familiar with the facts, strong support for KPFA would seem to be a no-brainer. But ambivalence about the option of democratic media can be found in many places, including some prominent liberal quarters.
In its Aug. 23 edition, The Nation magazine took an editorial position. Well, sort of. The Nation's hierarchy could not muster any outrage about Pacifica's outrageous actions. Instead, the editorial merely described them as "a series of heavy-handed moves."
In contrast, The Progressive magazine is forthright in its September issue. "With these actions," writes editor Matthew Rothschild, "it became clear that Pacifica management was violating the sacred trust which all of us in the alternative media are honor-bound to uphold. That trust is not just to preserve our institutions, but to uphold the principles behind those institutions."
In a media world where opportunism and economic power often prevail, there is still something sacred about the vision of democratic media. Some ideals are worthy of passion and commitment.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."