Dobyns Delivers Final Ayers Lecture on May 13
When I was asked five months ago to give a final lecture before I go home to Virginia, I was flattered, of course, and I saw it as an opportunity. I wanted to talk about the Federal Communications Commission's plan to change some of its rules. That sounds rather meaningless, but what the FCC does is not at all meaningless to anyone who makes a phone call, listens to radio, watches television or cable or satellite, has an Internet connection or reads a newspaper.
The FCC is not an agency that gets much publicity or public attention, although it controls an incredible number of activities. People don't much care. The FCC is considered a mix of bureaucracy, technology and boredom.
It is not that, but as long as we think it is, the FCC can operate rather quietly, even though it has more to do with our day-to-day lives than any other federal agency, except perhaps the IRS.
The Society of Professional Journalists said yesterday that the proposed rules changes have not been adequately reported and too few people are aware of what is happening.
On June 2nd, a Monday, not quite three weeks from now, the five members of the Federal Communication Commission - three Republicans, two Democrats - will vote on changes in six specific areas about ownership. I'll talk about two of them - television ownership by newspapers and ownership by giant media companies.
The proposed changes were given to the commissioners - four men, one woman - yesterday by the FCC's research staff. The changes were suggested mainly by Michael Powell, chairman of the commissions, and they have the support of the White House.
Mr. Powell is the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, but if you are thinking nepotism, think something else. Michael Powell made it on his own.
By the way, he was born in Birmingham in 1963.
Most of the rules are older than he is, and the most recent one was adopted in 1975, when he was 12.
1975--Satellite technology was severely limited, cable was in its infancy, the networks ruled the airwaves, the six companies that dominate mass media did not exist in their present form. The Internet did not become useful to most of us until 1993.
What is being regulated now did not exist when the regulations were written, and I, for one, will accept on that evidence alone that the regulations probably need work and certainly deserve a good read and a re-think. There are even more pressing reasons.
A federal court has ruled against some of the ownership regulations and has told the commission that future regulations must be based on some real need. The Telecommunications Act that Congress passed in 1996 order the FCC to review its regulations every two years and keep only those rules that are necessary.
Only those rules that are necessary.
Who gets to decide that? Who should get to decide that?
The thing I find most troubling about the proposed changes is that Mr. Powell did not want to hold public hearings about them. He finally agreed to hold one hearing, and that one was in Richmond. You know that I am a Virginian and almost offensively proud of it, but in my most chauvinistic moment, I would never claim that Richmond is a center of the broadcasting and entertainment industries.
Some people wanted a hearing in Los Angeles, which is a broadcasting and entertainment center, but Mr. Powell said any other public hearings would be a waste. The commission had 18,000 pieces of mail, and the commissioners knew what people thought.
All right, but are they the only ones who should know?
How about those of us who will have to live with the new regulations? I would like to hear the arguments. I want to know who is in favor and who is opposed. What are the potential benefits? Are there any predictable dangers?
Even with no debate there is one thing that is clear and, in my opinion, predictably dangerous to American citizens: The huge media companies that have developed are going to become much more huge.
So that we all know what I mean, I refer to six giants that own multi-media. They are AOL Time-Warner … Bertelsmann, which is German … Disney … News Corp., which started in England … Viacom … and Vivendi International, basically French. When I talk about the giant companies, they are the six I mean.
The current rule about how many stations could be owned was written in 1941 - 62 years ago - and it says that no entity … no person, no company, no conglomerate … may own television stations that together can reach more than 35 percent of the total television audience.
The idea was to promote a diversity of voices on the public airwaves.
First, those who want to change the rules say "the public airwaves" is a concept almost as old as the rule itself, and they are correct. This year, for the first time, basic cable service has a wider audience than the four over-the-air networks combined.
The 35-percent rule was adopted when commissioners believed that the United States would never have more than three networks, period. There are now four networks, 200 or more cable channels, more than that on satellite and streaming video on the Internet. There are all sorts of opinions out there.
The television networks, three of which are owned by the giants, and NBC is owned by General Electric, want to be able to own all the television stations they can, not to control anyone's opinion - they really don't care what you think - but to make money, heaps and gobs of money. Television stations, not networks - stations - are where the money is. Everyone on all sides agrees on that; if you want to make money, own stations.
How do I know that is true?
Because Rupert Murdock, who started News Corp. and still heads it, already owns more stations that the law allows, and he has won court fights to force the FCC to explain the rationale for the 35-percent rule. Mr. Murdoch, whose love of money and lack of taste are legend, even left England and became an American citizen so he could own television stations here. News Corp owns Fox.
Do you truly believe he would spend money to fight court cases if he were not making more money from the stations than it was costing him to keep them?
He wants more stations.
Chairman Powell was willing to let him or anyone else have them. He favored doing away with the percent rule altogether, but he ran into some infighting on the commission, and now may favor a rule that supports reaching 45 percent of the audience.
However, the New York Times said this morning that the suggested proposals have a 90 percent cap, and if that is true, then because of the way the commission counts television sets, the 90 percent cap is, in fact, a 100 percent cap.
And that would explain something.
I had no idea why the federal appeals court would accept a 45 percent cap if it will not accept 35 percent, but I can understand why it would accept a virtual 100 percent limit.
And as the companies get even larger, there is a greater potential to make even more money, not to mention a great potential for even more evil. What is the potential evil?
A journalism teacher in California got a little peeved when "60 Minutes" on Sunday gave air time to Stephen Glass, a thoroughly discredited journalist who wrote made-up phony articles in the 1990s. And he's on CBS promoting his new book.
Here is the possibility the teacher found with a little research. I checked just to be sure.
Glass' publisher is Simon & Schuster, a respected firm now owned by Viacom. CBS is also owned by Viacom. Is one hand washing the other? I have no idea, but the potential danger is obvious.
Another rule about television ownership that will probably change is the one adopted in 1975. It says that a newspaper cannot own a television or radio station in the same market.
Again, the idea was to promote diversity. The newspaper says one thing, the station says another, and we benefit from the public debate. It seemed a good idea, but in hindsight it was probably misguided and should be changed. Still, I am slightly worried.
The journalist side of me says newspapers should be allowed to own television stations. The free-market side of me says newspapers should be allowed to own stations. The anti-government side of me says newspapers should be allowed to own stations.
I know from several studies that where a local paper owns a local station, the newscasts are inevitably superior in every way. That can be studied because when the rule was written some of the newspaper-owned stations were grandfathered and still exist. A study funded by the FCC last year also concluded that stations owned by a newspaper have more and better news than other stations.
Two areas worry me. With the giants buying up stations and newspapers, how much local anything will be left? Second, how hard would it be to do better television news than we usually get?
You are luckier than most because you do have local ownership of some media. It isn't like that everywhere.
The media giants care no more about news than I care about the bunions on someone else's feet. What you get now is not news, but a homogenized gruel of infotainment and celebrity pap seasoned with a bit of scandal and a touch of crime.
The media giants make money from that, and making money, huge amounts of money, is all that concerns them and like their buddies in other giant companies, they will do whatever is necessary to increase their profits.
You think I am making this up because I am a liberal Yankee journalist and probably a communist to boot. After all, I worked and lived in New York. France, too.
I remember how shocked I was when a viewer wrote and said he knew I was a card-carrying communist. That was in the days before e-mail, so at least he had to find a piece of paper and sharpen his crayons.
Politically, I don't know quite what I am. I have voted for both major parties. Far left and far right scare me equally. If you want to make a Virginian a Yankee, it also has to apply to Robert E. Lee. I am a journalist, and I'm proud to be. I don't think I could be a communist, because I sincerely want to be rich. Not there yet, but I'm still working on it … and hopeful.
But I believe there is a limit to making money. I also believe the giants companies we have allowed to grow don't recognize that limit.
Does anyone need for me to say out loud Health South, WorldCom, Adelphi Communications, Tyco, Enron? How about the Wall Street firms that touted stocks they did not believe in to attract more lucrative business?
Wipe out the small investors and make a ton of money. Success.
They were fined $1.4 billion, largest fine of its kind ever. It sounds impressive … $1.4 billion. You and I could live on that for awhile, but if I go to the town square and rob Am South bank, get caught and am convicted, if I am treated as harshly as the Wall Street firms were, I will pay a fine of five cents and walk away.
But you think I am being too harsh. What proof have I that the money-is-everything attitude on Wall Street extends to the media companies, the ones who will benefit if the FCC changes the rules.
This is a statement from Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, which owns ABC and a whole bunch of media stuff.
"(Quote) We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective. (Close quote)"
I want to go off on something of a tangent, but not really. It leads right back to where we are. Stay with me.
We live in a strange time. Politics isn't king. Social issues are not king. Education surely is not king, and even money per se is not king.
Greed is king.
Rik Kirkland is managing editor of Fortune magazine, which is about as pro-business as you can be. I don't know him, but he's a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, and he was speaking there in April.
His theme was that the checks and balances of business and Wall Street - boards of directors, auditors, stock analysts - no longer work separately to keep each other honest, but now work together to make each other rich.
They lie, cheat and steal to meet the profit expectations of Wall Street so that stock prices will go up and the guys at the corporate top can cash in stock options for really big bucks.
Then Kirkland said this: "(Quote) There are not just a few bad apples, or even a bad bushel, but a bad barrel. (Close quote)" Like me, he apparently thinks we've seen only the tip, and the iceberg of greed is floating freely out there. We're a superpower, and the Titanic was a supership, and it sank.
In 1980 I did a documentary about industrial productivity, and among other things, I reported that corporate American CEOs made 45 times the pay of the average worker, a far greater difference than in any other industrial nation. I thought that might be a problem, a 45 times pay disparity between workers and bosses. That was 1980.
In 2002 American CEOs made 241 times as much as the average worker, according to an article in the Anniston Star.
That in a year when the Standard & Poor stock index dropped 21 percent … Fortune 500 company profits lost 66 percent of their value … 1.5 million Americans lost their jobs … and personal bankruptcies set a new record.
I have no idea how many American workers lost their savings and their retirement accounts, but I know Enron workers got wiped out.
And you remember Mr. Eisner with his sole obligation to make money? We have a problem.
In the 10 years ending with 2002, Mr. Eisner collected $954 million. For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that's $1.8 million a week.
During those same 10 years, Fortune 500 companies a median return of 9.1 percent, and Disney had an annual rate of return of - Are you ready? - 1.9 percent. If making money is his only corporate obligation, the question must be, making money for whom? For him or for the shareholders?
Apparently the level of CEO greed that is now ordinary in our country knows no bounds, no decency, no shame.
There was a book I reviewed in the late 1980s by Lewis Lapham, titled Money and Class in America. In it Mr. Lapham concluded that no one actually considers himself rich, and at all levels, when people were asked what it would take to make them rich, they gave a figure that was always right at twice as much as they made.
Now I wonder if twice as much would even be enough for some of our CEOs.
I am not a religious man. I say that with some fear because if this isn't the buckle on the Bible Belt, then I don't know where it is. But I was raised in a Southern Baptist military academy, and I know that some things in the Bible are observably true. One of those things is First Timothy 6:10: "The love of money is the root of all evil."
If you don't believe that, you don't have a problem with faith, necessarily, but you sure as hell have a problem with reality.
A couple of other points gently leading back to where we started.
We fought a war in Iraq recently. For the first time in our history, while we had American men and women in the field, the members of Congress did not even slow down in the fund-raising activity.
Always before they at least pretended that it was unseemly to beg for bucks in war time. Not now. Greed trumps death, unless, of course, it's your death.
Members of Congress cannot hold on to their offices and privileges if they aren't reelected, and they can't be reelected if they don't have campaign financing, and they can't have financing if they don't raise funds no matter what is going on - even war.
Daniel Schorr of NPR calls raising money "the invisible primary," and he says the ability to raise money "predicts who will win."
I know that some of you think Mr. Schorr is a media commie, but grant me that if he is, then he is a smart media commie who knows his way around Washington.
And, as promised, we are back in the city with the Federal Communications Commission and the proposed new rules of ownership.
Do I believe the rules of media ownership should be kept as they are now?
No. To pretend that what the rules are now is adequate to what the conditions are now is to believe that the Environmental Protection Agency should base its highway emission standards on the amount of horse poop in the streets.
I am willing to change the rules, but I want to know what I am changing and why. I want to know what the predictable result of the change will be. I want to know the opinions of other people. I do not want a federal agency, even a well-intended federal agency to tell me what is best for me. I want to be allowed to consider alternatives and make suggestions.
I admit a prejudice. I do not want a man who believes his sole obligation is to make money to control what I see on television and cable and at the movies. As the Internet has more than adequately demonstrated, pornography makes money, quite a lot of it, as a matter of fact.
I read a book years ago that I remember because I believed the plot was plausible, although not probable. It wasn't particularly well written, but it was interesting.
The communist Chinese had launched a television satellite from which they bounced programs to the United States. At first the programs were bull fights and other blood sports and soft porn and gradually worked up to incredible violence and hard porn. The programs eventually corrupted American sensibilities, and the Chinese took over. We no longer had the will to resist.
How about if it's not the Chinese? How about if whoever it is doesn't want our country, just our money? How about we lose the chance to help control our own fate, not because of some secret satellite, but because of government regulations?
I am heading back to Virginia, and I suspect most of you will stay in Alabama. In either case, the Federal Communications Commission will not control what we see, but it may well control who shows it to us and what we have to pay for it and how much competition remains.
We have not quite three weeks to answer two questions. Which rules are necessary and sensible? Who gets to decide?
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