Until now, this hasn’t been the best year for media mogul Rupert Murdoch. For one, none of the Republicans who had been on the payroll of his Fox News Channel—not Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin—became this year’s GOP nominee for president.
Oh sure, when Mitt Romney got the nod instead, Murdoch’s TV and newspaper empire backed him big time, but on Election Night, Fox pundits like Dick Morris and Karl Rove—the top GOP strategist and fundraiser—had to eat crow as Barack Obama won a second term in the White House, despite their predictions of a Republican landslide. (When the network called Ohio and the election for Obama, a desperate Rove tried to keep Fox statisticians from doing their job until the facts couldn’t be ignored or denied. New York magazine reports that Fox News programming chief Bill Shine now “has sent out orders mandating that producers must get permission before booking Rove or Morris.”)
On top of all that, just this week, Murdoch’s News Corp announced the shutdown of The Daily, its multimillion dollar attempt at a national iPad newspaper. And last week in London, the thousand-page report of an independent inquiry into the gross misconduct of the British press came out—that big scandal over reporters illegally hacking into people’s cell phones and committing other assorted forms of corruption, including bribery. Murdoch’s gossip sheet, The News of the World, was right at the center of it, the worst offender. The fallout cost Murdoch the biggest business deal of his career—the multi-billion buyout of satellite TV giant BSkyB—and the report attacked his now-defunct News of the World for its “failure of management” and “general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity.”
But Murdoch’s luck may be changing. Despite Fox News’ moonlighting as the propaganda ministry of the Republican Party, President Obama’s team may be making it possible for Sir Rupert to increase his power, perversely rewarding the man who did his best to make sure Barack Obama didn’t have a second term. The Federal Communications Commission could be preparing him one big Christmas present, the kind of gift that keeps on giving—unless we all get together and do something about it.
All indications are that Murdoch has his eye on two of the last remaining big newspapers in America—the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, each owned by the now bankrupt Tribune Company. He could add one or both to his impressive portfolio, but even though the media mogul is splitting News Corp into two, separately traded companies—one for its print entities, the other for TV and film—he would still come under current rules restricting media companies from owning newspapers and TV and radio stations in the same town. However, the FCC may be planning to suspend those rules, paving the way for Murdoch’s takeover of either of the two papers.
In prior years, the FCC has granted waivers to the rules, but this latest move on their part would be more permanent, allowing a monolithic corporation like News Corp or Disney, Comcast, Viacom, CBS or Time Warner—in any of the top twenty markets—to own newspapers, two TV stations, eight radio stations and even the local Internet provider.
Once again, massive media conglomerates would be given free rein to gobble up more and more of our communications outlets, increasing their already considerable power, destroying independent voices, diluting or eradicating local news and community affairs coverage, eliminating competition and stomping even further on diversity. A recent study—from the FCC itself—shows that last year female ownership of commercial TV and radio stations is at 6.8 percent, Latino ownership is 2.8 percent, Asian ownership is half a percent, and African American ownership of commercial stations actually has decreased to less than one percent.
Suspending the current rules would only make this awful situation worse, which is one of the reasons why Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders and several of his Senate colleagues sent a letter last week to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “Congress tasked you with a mandate to promote localism and diversity in America’s broadcast system,” they wrote. “While the current ownership rules have not completely achieved these goals, they nonetheless remain a bulwark against mass consolidation and stand to preserve local voices.”
This is not the first time the Federal Communications Commission has tried to change the rules. In 2003 and again five years ago, while George W. Bush was still in the White House, a Republican-dominated FCC made a similar attempt to sneak them past but the suspension was rejected by both the Senate and a Federal appeals court. Public comments—three million of them—ran ninety-nine percent against the attempt to make the media behemoths even bigger and more avaricious than ever. Among the opponents: freshman Senator Barack Obama and Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Under Genachowski, the FCC has from time to time upheld its mandate to protect the public interest—the recent decision to increase the number of low power community FM stations, for example, or the ruling that gave the public online access to who’s buying political ads on TV and radio, and how much they’re spending. But this time, it seems as if Chairman Genachowski may be trying to rush the rules change through on a technicality without sufficient time for public comments or even an open hearing.
Make your voices heard—write or call Genachowski and the other commissioners—you can find their names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers at the website www.fcc.gov/, or on the “Take Action” page at our website, BillMoyers.com. Write your senators and representatives, too, tell them the FCC must delay this decision and give the public a chance to have its opposition known. We’ve done it before.
Just ask the FCC this basic question: What part of “no” don’t you understand?
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at www.BillMoyers.com.