Bill Clinton and Media Policy

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MEDIA MOUSE– With greater awareness about the role that corporate media plays in the public’s understanding of issues like war, the economy and other public policy matters, it is important to investigate the role that former President Bill Clinton played in shaping the media landscape. Clinton, who will be speaking in West Michigan at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids annual dinner on June 18, signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a major change in media regulations.

According to Jeff Chester in his book Digital Destiny deregulation of the media was part of the plan early on with Clinton, who stated “we will support removal of judicial and legislative restrictions on all types of telecommunications companies: cable, telephone, utilities, television and satellite. Market forces replace regulations and judicial models that are no longer appropriate.” This was not just rhetoric for Clinton, but a mandate that was embodied with the passing of the 1996 Tele-Communications Act. Media Scholar Bob McChesney calls the 1996 Tele-Com Act one of the most anti-democratic pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century. Here is a summary of what the 1996 Tele-Com Act changed:

  • Lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of play lists, and less local news.

  • Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, News Corp, NBC and AOL, owner of Time Warner, now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.

  • The Act deregulated cable rates. Between 1996 and 2003, those rates have skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 50 percent.

  • The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.

  • The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections.

  • The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.

The consequences from the 1996 Tele-Com Act have been far reaching and continue to impact the American public, as is documented well in a Common Cause report entitled “The Fallout from the 1996 Telecommunication Act.” One of the consequences of the 1996 Tele-Com Act has been the reduction in female and minority ownership of media, which has also resulted in a decrease in women’s and minority voices in news coverage.

One more important outcome of the Clinton administration’s passage of the 1996 Tele-Com Act has been the ongoing relationship between the telecom industry and the Democrats. According to the Center for Public Integrity, from 1998-2004 the Democrats received over $82 million from the telecom industry and the Republicans just over $63 million. In the same way that Clinton’s support of NAFTA, the war in Iraq, and welfare reform have been a detriment to working people, media deregulation under Clinton has only benefited big business.


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