Swans Commentary » swans.com November 29, 2010  



Reforming Broadcast Media


by Michael DeLang





(Swans - November 29, 2010)   There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately among adherents of the principles of democratic process concerning January's Supreme Court decision for Citizens United opening the floodgates to an extreme expansion in the ability of highly capitalized private interests to use their financial advantage to influence the outcome of elections and the consequent influence over the nature of legislation created by those elected. Such influence is taken, rightly, to serve only the profit oriented interests of the donors to the detriment of the condition and needs of the general public. While this concern is certainly well-founded, and in no way overstated, I believe the general focus on the increased flow of corporate money into an already thoroughly corrupted process to be both misguided and misdirected. The fact is that this Court's shameless, pandering attempt at circumventing the spirit of our Constitution's blueprint for an electoral process grounded on democratic principles falls short of negating the actual fundamental protections of the electoral empowerment of the citizenry as provided for within the words of the governing document. Although the Court's decision greatly enhances the scope of private interests' ability to influence the minds of voters (a danger decidedly amplified by a volatile, but under-informed electorate,) each citizen still retains the right to cast his own vote in the light of his own conscience. The power of capital expenditure remains limited to indirectly influencing the outcomes of elections by its expanded access to the tools used in its pre-election assault on the minds of the voters. Elected legislative and executive offices are still not, at least by letter of law, prizes awarded to the highest bidder. In light of this political reality, I propose that the more prudent focus, in the service of democratic ideals, lies not in a strategy aimed at staunching the flow of capital into the political process, but rather in one that seeks to effectively reduce the cost-effective nature of these expenditures.

This position speaks directly to the need for strong reform legislation targeting the political, rather than the merely commercial, abuses inherent in the currently highly concentrated ownership of media. One example I'd like to suggest would be legislation leading toward the banning of the daily onslaught of paid political advertising clogging up the broadcast airwaves, both television and radio, in the months preceding national elections. The avenue to this end would be most readily approached under the aegis of the Federal Communication Commission's powers regarding the renewal of broadcast licensing. It will be critical, in this respect, to remind both the electorate and their elected representatives that the FCC is not an independent and free-standing entity guided by the whims of its members based on their own respective personal political beliefs and/or duly purchased biases, but a commission created and funded by Congress with a specific, though heretofore largely ignored, mandate to balance the needs of commerce with the public interest in the granting of licenses to broadcast on publicly owned air wave frequencies. Meaning that if the current members of the commission were to choose to balk at certain guidelines imposed on them in the interest of the public good, it would fall within both the power and the obligation of Congress, given their own oaths of public service, to de-fund or even dissolve the standing commission and replace it with a reconstituted entity, making way for the appointment of new members possessed of a clearer understanding of their purpose and mandate.

The legislation I propose would be along the lines of establishing specific minimum requirements for those who wish to either retain or acquire broadcasting licenses, including an agreement on the part of the applicant and prospective licensee to choose between one of two options. The first would be the absolute and total elimination of paid political advertising from their broadcasts. Alternatively, they could opt to retain this lucrative aspect of their broadcasting license in exchange for donating fifty percent of the revenue derived from paid political advertising to a fund designed to subsidize non-commercial publicly driven programming projects, as well as setting aside ten percent of their daily prime time broadcast day for the airing of said non-commercial programming. At this point, the Randian pundits who self-servingly pimp at the altar of the free market imperative will begin to scream that these "big government" imposed regulations will cripplingly restrict media owners from reaping the kinds of profits required to sustain the overall public good. It should be noted, here, that any objective and honest assessment of the distribution and concentration of privately held wealth, on either a national or global basis, reveals that all claims, however stridently expressed, which assert the existence of any public good whatsoever derived in the wake of the last four decades of an unfettered and under-regulated commercial climate tend to suffer from a dearth of any supporting empirical evidence. And, on the general subject of government regulation and deregulation, I'd like to point out that in a nation constituted of laws, as ours assuredly is, all commercial, political, and social activity is already subjected to government regulation. The only pertinent question is whether that regulation is allowed by a distracted, dispassionate, and de-politicized citizenry to serve the interests of a few, or if an engaged and reasonably well-informed electorate will force it into serving the shared interests of the many. To the apathetic, the cynical, and the self-fulfilling proclaimers of the irrelevance of the undercapitalized in the machinery of government, I would argue that there exists an astonishing potential for broad grassroots support on media reform issues. This largely untapped reserve, based on a profoundly widespread dissatisfaction with the dysfunctional character of both the government and the broadcast media, is evidenced by role of the unexpected broad-based public support leading to the successes of the media reform movement in its efforts to delay and then overturn the 2003-2004 Bush-Powell initiative removing all limits on media ownership. The current ongoing skirmish to preserve net neutrality seems to be enjoying a similar level of public sympathy.

There are battles that can be won that will take us in the direction we want to go, but in order to move forward we must first develop a clear understanding of who we are, the quality of the powers invested in us once we learn how to utilize them, and the nature and value of what we are fighting for. The existing commercial concentration of control over the flow of information stands in the path of these goals and must therefore be dismantled. The issues surrounding the struggle for diversification of media access have to become the foundation supporting the platform on which we make our stand as engaged citizens of a democratic nation. All evidence, from the enormous numbers of registered voters who decline to exercise these rights at the polls to the bizarre antics of the Tea Party mob, leads to the undeniable conclusion that a vast majority of the populace is deeply dissatisfied with the direction in which the nation is moving. If you count yourself among them and want your voice to be heard, determine the level of participation best suited to your own means and abilities and then get involved in the media reform movement. You just can't afford to sit this one out.


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About the Author

Michael DeLang is a self-defined middle-aged blue collar worker in the trucking industry who lives in Golden, Colorado.   (back)


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Published November 29, 2010