Commercial Influence at FCC: A Challenge to Free Speech

By Hazel Henderson

The days in the past century when rebels captured the main radio station to take over whole countries are long gone. Today’s political takeovers are now by corporate mergers, online giants, big data, computers, artificial intelligence and AI algorithms. All these new forces are winning over traditional politics, democracies and grassroots citizen organizing. Mediocracy is now the dominant form of governance in many countries.

In this context, we see today’s power grab by Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of 170 TV stations covering 38 percent of the current 39 percent limit over U.S. audiences and markets, as in rulings of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Sinclair is now lobbying the FCC and politicians to expand its power over U.S. audiences by buying Chicago-based Tribune Media’s 42 stations which would extend its reach to cover 72 percent of U.S. viewing households and markets.  As with so many government agencies, the FCC has been under the influence of the media corporations it is supposed to oversee.

This kind of “regulatory capture” of so many government agencies is documented by many economists. The Trump administration’s new appointee Ajit Pai, as chairman of the FCC, is corporate-friendly, evidenced already by his position in the “net neutrality” battle. Pai is now expected to grant Trump-supporting Sinclair with a loophole for its expansion of control over U.S. markets and audiences. This means the the  trusted local TV station will now be under new corporate control.

The founders of the United States feared concentration of power in government. They installed separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution – buttressed by freedom of the press. The very first Amendment reinforced this free media which became known as “the Fourth Branch” of U.S. democracy.

Today, two new threats have emerged:

  1. Political interference with press freedom by intimidation, propaganda from both foreign powers and domestic interest groups, advertising, planting fake news, trolling online and mainstream media using “bots” and big data analytics.
  2. Corporate consolidation of media, local papers, TV and radio stations and newer online giants dominating the internet and social media.

Crusading media experts’ reports, such as Jacques Ellul’s classic Propaganda (1968), Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message (1964) on the power of advertising and television and Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly (1983) all warned us of the accelerating merger and consolidation of control of U.S. and global media. Today the 50 owners of 90 percent of U.S. media described by Bagdikian is down to six!  The takeover of media ownership now controls most of the news and information the public sees, hears, reads and accesses online. [Ed. note: making independent publications like TriplePundit all the more important!]

These giants of our “mediocracies” are steered by big finance, such as hedge fund kingmaker Robert Mercer, funder of the Trump campaign, Breitbart, Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Funders include the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and  others on the right wing described by Jane Mayer in “Dark Money” (2016), and smaller players on the left, such as George Soros.

In “Mediocracies and Their Attention Economies” (2017) I described this new form of government overlooked by most political and social scientists which I first documented in “Building A Win Win World” (1996). Media control as a favorite government strategy for power is well-known and common from Putin’s Russia to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Yet the world is less aware of power grabs by the newer forms: corporate media and control by finance and technological superiority. Today, control of media content and access, and intimidation of journalists exist in many countries. Meanwhile commercial advertising dominates consumer “education” worldwide with its global market of $570 billion tightly-held by giant corporate conglomerates.

The battle in today’s mediocracies is about trust and truth, access to data, facts and scientific evidence. Trust in the past was based in family, community, tribe and face-to-face knowledge. Trust and confidence are the basis of all markets, banking and finance.  Trust does not scale easily, the basic dilemma of all large complex societies, as they search for new forms on blockchains and in cryptocurrencies. Trust and truth are also the basis of free media and journalistic excellence. Will new grabs by corporate power succeed over freedom of the press and the public’s right-to- know, access to unbiased information and truthful advertising? Truth versus propaganda? Stay tuned!

Hazel Henderson, D.Sc.Hon., FRSA, CEO, of Ethical Markets Media, also founded the EthicMark® Awards for Advertising That Uplifts The Human Spirit In Society.

Image credit: Pixabay / PublicDomainPictures

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