NEW YORK—Comparing media executives to children in a playground, Sandra Rice, vice president of the Emma L. Bowen Foundation, said that relaxing ownership rules would leave media conglomerates free to bully their way to greater control of the industry.
“The Federal Communication Commission’s decision to relax media ownership regulations is deeply inappropriate,” said Rice, the luncheon speaker at the Donald McGannon Communication Research Center’s two-day conference examining diversity and localism in the media industry held in Pope Auditorium on Dec. 15 and 16. “So, if we accomplish nothing else over the next five years, let us keep the playing field safe” from media giants.
Earlier this year, the FCC approved new media ownership rules raising the national ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent, possibly opening the door for a few companies to gain ownership of a majority of the country’s television stations. The new rules also lifted a ban that prevented a company from owning a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market, except in the smallest markets. Critics of the FCC’s actions fear that local media outlets, and the varying viewpoints they present, will be greatly diminished.
“Diversity and localism are central to the effective functioning of our media system,” said Philip Napoli, director of the McGannon Center. “Access to diverse sources and content is essential to a robust marketplace of ideas. Media content and services that address local interests and concerns are essential to the welfare of local communities.”
Many of the conference’s featured speakers—who are leading academics, activists, advocates, policy makers and media professionals in the field—expressed concerns that the recent policy decisions by the FCC neglect the importance of promoting diversity and localism in the industry.
Ernest Sotomayor, president of the board of directors of Unity Journalists of Color, equated the declining number of local broadcasters to a profound “disconnect to the community,” where media outlets are typically not representative of local communities and interests.
Mara Einstein, assistant professor of media studies at Queens College, said that the economics of television, which is reliant on advertising income, is mostly to blame for the industry’s subpar track record in diversity. Television executives, she said, shift industry resources away from diverse interests and toward a centrist, mainstream position to maximize viewership and earning potential. She further concluded that the industry needs “improved regulation, rather than no regulation.”
Napoli concluded, “Without attention to diversity and localism principles, we risk having a media system in which the range of viewpoints available is narrowed, and in which the opportunities to convey ideas to large audiences are available to only a select few speakers.”
A final report summarizing the research and ideas presented at the conference, as well as recommendations to foster diversity and localism in the media, will be released by the center next spring.
The McGannon Center promotes ethical and socially responsible communication policy and practices through research grants, awards programs, and an annual series of roundtable conversations, colloquia and lectures. Named after the late Donald McGannon, a Fordham alumnus and former general executive and chairman of the board of Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, the center opened in 1986 at Fordham. McGannon’s dedication to ethics and socially responsible communication policy are the foundation of the center’s operations.