Unions Fight Urge To Merge
WGA, AFTRA, others dismiss FCC ownership studies
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/29/2002 7:00:00 PM
You can't merge me, I'm working for the union." That could have been the battle cry in the nation's capital as media and entertainment unions weighed in on the broadcast-ownership studies commissioned by the FCC, calling them flawed and incomplete.
|What Might Have Been|
|Outlets and owners in 2000 vs. a projected number based on 1960-1980 growth continued through the deregulatory era|
|Source: "Democracy Unhinged, a critique of the FCC Studies on Media Ownership," Center for Economic and Policy Research
|Kansas City, Mo.||53||88||33||68|
|Little Rock, Ark.||60||72||33||64|
|Myrtle Beach, S.C.||38||81||23||43|
|Terre Haute, Ind.||33||56||22||45|
At a press conference in Washington unveiling the study, Mona Mangan, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, outlined what the group believes are the stakes involved: "Should the GOP-controlled commission decide to wipe out or significantly weaken" the ownership rules, she said, it will lead to "a feeding frenzy of corporate acquisitions" that will result in monopolistic crossownership of radio, TV, newspapers, the Internet and more.
Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley also called on "big media" to better cover the ownership issue as a major policy story, complaining that "it's not being covered" and that one of the reasons is the media's own self-interest.
Although the FCC's dozen studies have generally been interpreted as supporting further deregulation, a union analysis of them filed with the FCC and pitched to reporters in Washington took strong issue with that characterization.
The analysis was penned by Dean Baker, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, among others. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, The Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America and WGA (East), in concert with the AFL-CIO's Department for Professional Employees, commissioned the analysis.
While conceding that various factors, including increasing availability of alternative media, make it reasonable to question whether current restrictions are still in the public interest, the unions say the conclusions in many of the FCC studies are more ambiguous than their executive summaries suggest and, "in some cases, the evidence can be used to show the opposite of what is suggested by the summaries."
Baker said several of the studies were inadequately designed and others provide evidence that more media concentration will be harmful in five specific ways:
Lower quality of media, specifically more ad time
Higher ad prices
Little substitution (that is, the various media are not interchangeable).
Baker generally dismissed the two studies of the effects of newspaper/broadcast crossownership on news coverage as flawed and of little value. Both FCC studies concluded that such crossownership did not affect the slant or quality of news coverage.
"The behavior of cross-owned newspaper and television stations in a context where such combinations are generally prohibited by the FCC," Baker said, "does not necessarily indicate how such combinations would behave in the absence of FCC oversight, just as the fact that drivers don't speed in front of a police car doesn't mean that drivers don't speed."
Notable for its omission from the FCC study, said Baker, is "the extent to which ownership concentration may affect the ability of various interest or political groups to reach a wider public with their views." For example, he said, "a fast-food chain may threaten to pull advertising from a media outlet that broadcasts an ad from an organization seeking to increase the minimum wage." Another blind spot, he suggested, was the failure to examine how "commercial interests of the media outlets or their advertisers may affect the content of their news and entertainment."
Thomas Carpenter, national director for news/broadcasting, for AFTRA, is concerned about job losses. He said there is a "fundamental interference" in the public-interest relationship between journalists and viewers "when consolidation results in layoffs."
Mangan said job loss is not WGA's "central concern." Even in duoply situations, she said, "there is slightly less employment, but that is balanced out by the fact that it is a growing industry." She said her members are more concerned about the loss of product quality than loss of jobs.
The unions called for more hearings on the issue. The deadline for public comment is Jan. 2, but a field hearing, at the insistence of Commissioner Michael Copps, has been slated for February. The Columbia School of Law plans a day-long hearing on the subject Jan. 16, according to Foley.
The FCC plans to use its studies, released last September, to help draft changes to a laundry list of media-ownership rules, including newspaper/broadcast crossownership, radio- and TV-ownership caps, and multiple ownership.
The studies are part of a congressionally mandated biennial regulation review, given additional impetus by court decisions that Congress's intent was clear: Such rules must be justified or jettisoned.
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