Invasion of the media snatchers
The grassroots effort to prevent more media consolidations will come to a head at an upcoming hearing in Monterey your newspapers and broadcast stations aren't telling you about. A look at the state of our "free press."

By Camille T. Taiara

THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS Commission will hold a public hearing in Monterey July 21 to help determine how well local TV and radio stations are serving their communities. It's the only such hearing for the entire West Coast – one of six nationwide – and a rare opportunity for the public to influence federal regulations on media ownership.

But if you weren't reading this article, chances are you wouldn't even know the FCC hearing is happening. The San Francisco news media – which are dominated to a profound extent by a handful of big, out-of-town corporations – have largely blacked out the story, thus illustrating the problem posed by the modern mass media.

Media democracy activists last year launched a successful – indeed, downright stunning – grassroots coup d'état. The FCC received more than two million comments about rule changes spearheaded by chair Michael Powell that would have allowed the same company to own both a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market, raised local TV ownership caps from 35 to 45 percent of a region's viewership, and made other concessions to the industry. Almost all the comments opposed Powell's plan – and although he rammed his deregulation scheme through anyway, a federal appeals court has forced the FCC to reopen the case.

Among the court's points: the commission needs to take more account of public concern and the local impacts of media consolidations. That makes the Monterey hearing critical.

Powell relied on a dangerously flawed argument in lobbying for loosening the ownership restrictions. He claimed new technologies such as cable, satellite TV, and the Internet created heightened competition that made the old rules obsolete and imposed unfair restrictions on the economic viability of the traditional media behemoths.

The same thesis is reflected in a cover story titled "Rethinking Media Monopoly," by Will Harper, in the July 7 issue of the East Bay Express – a paper owned by SF Weekly parent company New Times, the nation's largest alternative weekly chain. Interestingly, even Harper's article made no mention of the upcoming FCC hearing.

But a closer look reveals trends whose implications undercut the logic of Powell, Harper, and other big-media apologists:

Five giants – AOL/Time Warner, Walt Disney Co./ABC, Viacom, News Corp., and Bertelsmann – now control the equivalent of what 50 corporations dominated 20 years ago, according to The New Media Monopoly, the latest edition of renowned media critic Ben Bagdikian's book. Those five already control more than 80 percent of prime-time programming.

The vast majority of Americans – 54 percent – still rely on television for their news. Only 8 percent look to the Internet as their primary news source, and half of those sites are owned by the top media giants, according to media watchdog group Free Press.

Corporate control of cable and satellite TV is even more striking, with monopolies representing 98 percent of all cable markets nationwide, and two companies controlling satellite TV.

The FCC – which is now heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists and myopic free marketeers – has consistently strengthened the grip powerful media conglomerates have on what Americans see, hear, and read with moves such as handing the digital spectrum to current TV station owners for free five years ago (a gift worth $80 billion at the time) and fighting low-power FM radio stations.

If the past is any indication, any independent new media outlet that begins to garner a reasonable audience will almost certainly get overtaken by traditional media conglomerates – as seen when Time Warner merged with AOL.

Those on the inside see the flaws in Powell's premise. A study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in April 2000 that "73 percent of journalists believe that buyouts of news organizations by big, diversified corporations has a negative effect on journalism."

And if you want a clear indication of why media consolidation is such a disaster, you don't have to look any further than San Francisco.

Tuning out the public

In San Francisco today, Clear Channel and Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting own a grand total of 16 radio stations available on the local dial. None of the major TV stations are locally owned. And one daily – Hearst Corp.'s San Francisco Chronicle – dominates the newspaper market.

As in the rest of the nation, the most drastic consequences of media consolidation can be seen in radio.

"San Francisco played a pioneering role in radio during the 1960s and 1970s," characterized by a rich diversity of locally produced news and information and a healthy range of noncommercial music, KALW-FM general manager Nicole Sawaya told the Bay Guardian.

Then came the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated radio and allowed two companies to gobble up stations and transform the industry. Clear Channel grew from 40 stations nationwide to 1,240 – yet the company operates with only 200 employees, according to Bagdikian's latest findings.

This is the same Clear Channel that overwhelms the national airwaves with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura. It's the same Clear Channel that fired popular local DJ Davey D after he interviewed Rep. Barbara Lee on the air; that blacklisted the Dixie Chicks and 160 songs following Sept. 11, 2001; and that refuses to accept liberal political ads on its radio stations and billboards.

Today Clear Channel and Infinity control almost 50 percent of San Francisco's radio market share – as well as most of the city's billboard concessions and many of the region's large concert venues.

And while Clear Channel benefited from economies of scale, its local stations and listeners felt the repercussions: shared top-level management (with multiple stations being operated out of the same building), voice tracking (a practice by which an announcer in one part of the country prerecords content for large numbers of radio stations and ads in sound bites to make it seem as if he or she is transmitting locally), centralized news and information feeds, nationally syndicated talk shows, and mass-produced music.

In fact, at least one local station features no locally originated programming whatsoever: Infinity-owned KBAY-FM simply airs the exact same content as KBAA-FM, an Infinity-owned station in San Jose, according to Andy Baker, broadcast director at the San Francisco office of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

"Progressive deregulation has eviscerated the radio news business," Larry Bensky, a 35-year veteran of Bay Area radio, told us. (Bensky also teaches media studies at Stanford University and Cal State Hayward and hosts KPFA-FM's Sunday Salon.) Whereas 20 or 30 years ago, most stations had full-time news staff, "maybe 10 percent of the jobs that once existed in radio news still exist," he said. Nationally syndicated – and overwhelmingly right-wing, reactionary – talk shows have since taken the place of many locally produced shows.

"It's made the ability to have a career on mic, in radio, virtually impossible," said Sawaya, who reports being inundated with résumés from overqualified radio programmers who've lost their jobs.

And the less local staff and programming, the less accountable radio stations become to the communities they're meant to serve. This means important regional issues – including the roots of poverty, homelessness, and inner-city violence, critical environmental concerns, and problems with local health, education, and transportation systems, to name a few – are poorly covered, if they're covered at all.

As part of our investigation, we visited Clear Channel and Infinity's main local offices to see what we could discover from their public files.

In return for free access to the airwaves – a public resource, by law – broadcasters must prove they're managing their piece of the spectrum in a way that serves the greater good of society. As recently as 1981, broadcasters had to pass stringent tests to earn and renew their licenses. Now broadcasters seeking to renew their permit to operate simply fill out a form and send in a check.

Even though the FCC has scaled back its demands, stations are still required to maintain and make open to public inspection their ownership records, information on their community issues and educational programming (including shows and public service announcements), and public complaints, all of which theoretically can be inspected on demand during regular business hours.

But of the seven Clear Channel stations whose files we asked to see, only five had them available. All were characterized by minimal record-keeping, and most showed that PSAs made up a tiny portion of the station's programming and tended to be generic or conservative in content. (KKSF-FM's PSAs, for example, consisted of health care and educational promotions interspersed with ads for an over-the-counter throat spray called Cepacol.)

The files of KNEW-FM and KABL-FM were organized into spiffy, new white binders but contained little more than blank forms for reporting information on how the stations were meeting their PSA requirements, and identical letters claiming inadequate record-keeping by the stations' previous owners – even though Clear Channel has owned both stations for years.

The forms and letters had been created by Orchard Media Services, an operation run by former radio station broker Ken Orchard and his daughter Kelly, that was hired by Clear Channel to manage its public files in 17 regional markets. (The firm has similar contracts with many of the largest TV owners – including ABC, NBC, and CBS.)

Neither Orchard nor station managers seem to be able to explain why the files seem so sparse.

Joe Cunningham, vice president for marketing and comanager of Clear Channel Bay Area, told us that quarterly reports on KNEW's issues coverage should have been in the file. "I know there should be things in there," he said. "I certainly signed off for things to be in there."

Yet Kelly Orchard wrote in a Jan. 1 letter, "Based on prior and subsequent performance, we believe that [KNEW] observed its commitment to serve the community interests in a diligent manner, but because of several ownership changes, record keeping was not adequate." (Clear Channel took over KNEW in 1997.)

Of the two Infinity stations' files that we reviewed, only one – that of KLLC-FM (Alice) – included enough records to provide a reasonable sense of the extent of its local coverage and just what it was doing to meet its public interest requirements.

A separate investigation of five northern California radio and TV stations conducted by Media Alliance in May generated similarly dismal findings. In one case, the majority of PSAs were ads for the Army National Guard. In others, stations owned by the same companies ran identical announcements as their sister stations.

Ken Orchard even admitted to us that the FCC has been "a little loosey-goosey with enforcement" over the past several years.

The end result: San Franciscans have little means for assessing – or challenging – local stations' performance.

Or as radio veteran Bensky said, "Major broadcasting rewrote the rules for itself so as to maximize profits and minimize its responsibility to the public."

Race to the bottom

The problems of consolidation are by no means limited to the radio industry. A look at San Francisco's TV and print outlets uncovers similar trends toward centralized production – and shows that the TV and print industries could follow the radio behemoths' lead should ownership caps be relaxed any further.

Viacom and Cox Enterprises own two TV stations each in San Francisco – which together control 43 percent of the city's TV audience, according to a study conducted in March by the Institute for Public Representation.

Cox Enterprises operates KTVU, channel 2, and KICU, channel 36, under the same roof and with the same general manager.

Viacom has consolidated the operations of KPIX, channel 5, and KBHK, channel 44, which share the same station manager, programming director, and promotions director and together represent one of the company's largest duopolies.

In March of last year, the jointly run stations announced a new, three-way alliance with the Chronicle ("Northern California's largest newspaper") and Viacom/Infinity's KCBS-AM news radio. The partnership "includes collaboration on news projects and polls, cross-promotion, co-sponsorship of events, and teamwork on new business developments," the press release reads.

AFTRA's Baker told us that although the local TV industry hasn't suffered the kinds of job losses seen in radio, the same number of staff are now required to produce substantially more programming. According to industry insiders, this means TV journalists are dedicating more time on the production end, relying more heavily on network and affiliate feeds, and spending less time in the community investigating stories.

"It used to be that every TV station had full-time archivists," said Tom DeVries, a 35-year veteran of San Francisco's TV industry who now runs his own TV production company out of Emeryville. Reporters could quickly access old footage of, say, politicians making campaign promises, which they could then re-air if those politicians broke their word, he explained. Nowadays, TV networks are more concerned with the bottom line than ever – although "they make tons of money. They're more profitable than oil wells."

The trend makes TV news vulnerable to shallow coverage and official spin. Pressure to scoop the competition and squeeze information into 30-second sound bites has seriously deteriorated the quality of news, and entertainment is increasingly geared to the lowest common denominator.

As a result, regular Fox news viewers are four times more likely to hold mistaken assumptions about why we're fighting a war in Iraq – such as believing that Saddam Hussein operated in cahoots with al-Qaeda – than those who listen to public radio, a recent study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found.

The only local stories that get covered "is stuff that can attract a sizable audience and can be syndicated [nationwide]," DeVries said. "It's all Lacy Peterson all the time.

"I've produced thousands of TV shows," he told us. But of them all, the one that got some of the greatest airplay was a story on a kleptomaniac cat. "I was getting calls from all over the nation, from people I hadn't heard from in years."

TV news is "good on covering fires, crime, and cute features, or parades and sports and weather," concurred Rollin Post, an award-winning reporter with 40 years of experience at San Francisco-based TV stations who retired four and a half years ago. But "you can't cover government like you'd cover a fire, where you can just keep the police radio next to your desk," he said. Rather, reporters have to know who's who in local politics, what allegiances or vested interests they might have, and more if they hope to actually inform the public.

"It's got to be a beat," he said.

Today, DeVries and Post told us, S.F.'s TV stations don't have bureaus covering the state legislature in Sacramento. And – with the sole exception of Barbara Taylor of KCBS-AM – it's rare to see a broadcast reporter at a City Hall meeting on a regular basis. They only show up when something easy and sensational is happening.

For example, during the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' May 25 meeting, seven TV crews showed up to cover a resolution supporting District Attorney Kamala Harris's decision not to seek the death penalty for an accused cop killer. The board's action had only symbolic value, but it was a way for TV to perpetuate a good, emotional crime story.

Yet a month later, when the board's Budget Committee held dozens of hours of budget hearings over several days, not a single TV crew (and during most of it, not even any print or radio reporters) showed up to cover the hearings.

Stanford University's Grade the News similarly found that the mainstream news failed horribly to inform local audiences of the issues and campaigns leading up to the 2002 elections. In a study of local newspaper and TV campaign coverage during two of the three weeks leading up to the election, the group found that none of the region's top five TV stations provided any analysis whatsoever of claims made in political ads – which by nature tend to be one-sided and leave out critical information. Instead the stations relied on those ads in their coverage without bothering to investigate whether the claims they made were true, and in some cases they granted more air time to the ads than to elections news. "In 2002 ... political campaigns spent $34 million on advertising in the Bay Area market, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public-interest research organization in Washington, D.C.," Grade the News' Michael Stoll wrote.

Parallel convergence trends can be found among local print media, too, in which multiple papers owned by the same parent company share top management and even staff positions. Grade the News recently discovered that the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times have been running the same stories by a half-dozen reporters assigned to parent company Knight-Ridder's Sacramento bureau. Yet both papers claim those writers as staff.

It's a trend that's become all too common, said local Newspaper Guild representative Erin Tyson Poh. Poh points to Denver-based William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, which owns 22 dailies throughout northern California, as a prime example. "You have fewer voices than previously, when those papers were separate and less clustered," she said. "The San Mateo County Times, Hayward Daily Review, Fremont Argus, Tri-Valley Herald [in Pleasanton] (which is also the San Ramon Valley Herald), the Oakland Tribune, and, well, there used to be the Alameda Times-Star, which is now just an edition of the Oakland Trib – all share reporters. So you can pick up any one of their papers or look at their Web sites and they'll be carrying the same stories. They also share stories on a less frequent basis with the Marin Independent Journal and the Vallejo Times-Herald. And those reporters will be identified as staff reporters."

Wrong direction

The overwhelming majority of analysts and industry insiders we spoke to expressed grave concerns about the profit motive taking precedence over the public interest in our nation's media policy.

"News is a business whose job it is to occasionally offend its customers," Grade the News director John McManus told us. Yet large media companies' increasingly diversified business holdings have made the mainstream outlets less willing to challenge corporate misdeeds.

Meanwhile, small, independently owned media are squeezed out by conglomerates, and limited budgets make it difficult for public outlets to compete.

In the end, critical voices are lost and our democracy suffers.

But these same analysts say it doesn't have to be this way. They point to Canada and the U.K. – which provide plenty of public funding for media and have erected a firewall around the industry that helps maintain its independence from economic and political pressures – as examples of systems that more closely serve the greater good.

It's with such models in mind that local activists are now gearing up to make their case in front of the FCC July 21.

The time has come, they say, to take the nation's corporate media behemoths to task.

Matthew Hirsch and Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara