The airwaves belong to all of us, right? They’re part of “the commons” that, in theory, no private interest should be able to buy or control. Nonetheless, government long ago allowed television and radio stations to use the airwaves for commercial purposes.
Over the years, we’ve been reporting on how power is monopolized by the powerful. How corporate lobbyists, for example, far outnumber members of Congress. And how the politicians are so eager to do the bidding of donors that they allow those lobbyists to dictate the law of the land and make a farce of democracy.
Here’s the latest case in point. The airwaves belong to all of us, right? They’re part of “the commons” that, in theory, no private interest should be able to buy or control.
Nonetheless, government long ago allowed television and radio stations to use the airwaves for commercial purposes, and the advertising revenues have made those companies fabulously rich. But part of the deal was that, in return for the privilege of reaping a fortune, they would respect the public interest in a variety of ways, including covering the local news important to our communities.
Alas, over the years, through one ruse or another, the public has been shafted. We heard the other day of a candidate for office in a Midwest state who complained to the general manager of a TV station that his campaign was not getting any news coverage.
“You want coverage?” the broadcaster replied. “Buy some ads, and then we’ll talk!”
The media companies and their local stations — including Goliaths like CBS and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — stand to pull in as much as $3 billion this year from political ads. And most of that money will pay for airing ugly, toxic negative ads that take us to the lowest common denominator of politics.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed to the broadcasting cartel that stations post on the Web the names of the billionaires and front organizations — many of them super PACs — paying for campaign ads. It’s simplicity itself: Give citizens access online to find out quickly and directly who’s buying our elections.
But the broadcasting industry’s response has been a simple, declarative “Not on your life!” It would cost too much money, they claim. The party line was sounded by Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, who told the FCC that making the information available on the Internet “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government.” We’re not making this up.
Through its control of the House of Representatives, telecommunications companies got a piece of legislation passed a week or so ago, euphemistically titled the FCC Process Reform Act. George Orwell must be spinning in his grave — this isn’t reform, it’s evisceration.
Not only does the bill remove roadblocks to more media mergers — further reducing competition — it would subject every new rule and every FCC analysis of that rule to years of paperwork and judicial review, enabling the industry’s horde of lawyers and lobbyists “to throw sand in the works at every opportunity,” as one expert puts it. There was a noble attempt by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to include in this bill an amendment that, like the FCC proposal, called for stations to post online who’s putting up the big bucks for political ads. Shocker — it was rejected. Score another one for the plutocrats.
Page 2 of 2 - There is some good news. The White House opposes this latest bid by the broadcasting oligarchy to further eviscerate the public interest. And the fate of the House bill in the Senate is uncertain at best. In the meantime, as far as those political ads go, we’re not totally helpless. Here’s what you can do: Under current law, local television stations still have to keep paper files of who’s paying for these political ads, and they have to make those files available to the public if requested. You can even make copies to take away with you. So just go down to your nearest station, politely ask for the records, and then send the data online to the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative or to the organization of investigative journalists called Pro Publica.
Each is pulling together all the information on political ads they get from you and others — crowdsourcing — and making it available to the entire country via the Internet.
In other words, here’s a way citizens can take action even against the plutocrats who run Big Media and Congress.
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, “Moyers & Company,” airing on public television in Canandaigua, N.Y. Comment at BillMoyers.com.