On October 20, 2007, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered aired a report by Neda Ulaby on the current rekindled “interest” in “relaxing” restrictions for large corporations that ‘want’ to own more media outlets in top markets. The report itself was brief and superficial – just over three-and-a-half minutes long, but thoroughly disconcerting and enough to light a short fuse to a rage bomb.
Four years ago, this issue was presented and, as Ulaby put it, “decisively smacked down” by Byron Dorgan and Trent Lott – a bit of a ‘bipartisan’ effort there, in the name of agreeable aims. Dorgan is a ‘democrat’ from North Dakota and, when asked for comment by Ulaby, he said that he and Lott (notoriously Republican, of course) were “furious” and that the renewal of this issue (in suggesting restrictions on ownership should be ‘relaxed’) “is the last thing we should be considering.” Dorgan went on to say that there is “already so much concentration” of ownership in the media market and that the allowance of more cross-ownership “is an unbelievably bad step.” I agree with him and so, in fact, do most people; but this won’t stop Bush-Cheney appointee and general golden boy, Duke & Harvard alumnus Kevin Martin from ‘moving ahead’ with his plans to hand more of our already consolidated media over to men with between seven and ten-figure incomes. Why?
Kevin Martin is the current chairman of the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission). Prior to this latest heavy position, Martin was the “Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.” Before that flowery appointment, he was a member of the ‘Bush-Cheney Transition Team,’ and, preceding that, he was “Deputy General Counsel for the Bush Campaign.”
Here is what the FCC has to say about itself (courtesy of www.fcc.gov/aboutus.html):
“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent United States government agency, directly responsible to Congress. The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The FCC’s jurisdiction covers the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. possessions.”
“…The President designates one of the Commissioners to serve as Chairperson. Only three Commissioners may be members of the same political party. None of them can have a financial interest in any Commission-related business.”
Fascinating. The term “independent” is always enveloped in the dullest of greys… Independent from what, who, where? Why? How? Clearly the FCC is not independent from outside interests – they’re not even pretending to be. How could someone with a background like Kevin Martin’s be appointed its chairman (that’s a five-year term, by the way; and he was just reappointed)? That is to say, George W. Bush simply plugged a loyal friend into a fairly powerful position. This is obviously a tired phenomenon (favors for favors for favors) and such is the game of politics.
However, to say that “None of them can have a financial interest in any commission-related business” is just absurd, I think. Kevin Martin is quite clearly interested in ‘business’ as a financial practice, and so are millions of others, of course; but Martin’s is special, because he also has a dedicated interest in the presidency of George Walker Bush. He did, to be frank, devote quite a bit of his time to helping him get elected, ‘transited’ and, in turn, economically well-advised (from his own perspective, that is). Kevin Martin is a “Bushite,” plainly, and now he is the chairman of the FCC; and he wants to direct this federal commission toward helping huge, monumentally wealthy corporate demigods swallow up what little diversity we have in our media, digest it and excrete more goose-stepping mainstream news outlets.
Kevin Martin believes, or claims to believe, that someone like Sam Zell – ranking number 52 in Forbes magazine’s 2006 list of America’s 400 richest people – should be able to own the Tribune company, which, in turn, owns 23 television stations, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, among others. Sam Zell has said, according to the International Herald Tribune on March 25, 2007, that “he would get into the business not because he has any special affection for newspapers or wants to wield editorial control but because he wants to make money.” Even if that were true, it only further sours the concept of cross-ownership. Sam Zell is a billionaire – a billionaire; obviously the man has long since passed living ‘paycheck-to-paycheck.’ Never rich enough, apparently, Sam Zell now wants a piece of corporate media; and for little more (so he says) than seeing how much money he can make off of it. Grand… A truly fitting niche for some of the country’s most widely read news dailies.
And to claim that he does not want to “wield editorial control” is just ridiculous and, ultimately, misleading. The very act of selling advertising space in order to generate the profits Zell is so obsessed with is steeped in editorial control issues. As a hypothetical, consider this… Say some giant television network wanted to make a deal with the new owner of the three aforementioned dailies. In the deal, the network would pay a huge sum of money – “money” being something traditionally valued by those who “want to make money” – in order to run a week’s worth of full-page advertisements in each of the three papers, plugging some god-awful new prime-time series. The one problem the network has – the one problem that could ‘stand in the way’ of this important, expensive deal – is that one of the syndicated columnists writes like some lousy, commie bastard, and that’s just not so great. The network doesn’t want to be associated by any stretch with that pinko dreck… So, then, what is a money-maker to do? To someone [like Zell] who seems to care little even about editorial control, this decision may not be so difficult; and it comes down to two choices, really: integrity or profit; and integrity ain’t worth shit on the open market.
The regulations hampering Zell and his brethren in monopolistic control of media outlets are a bit lengthy to quote here without losing your attention, but they can be found at the FCC’s website, located here: http://www.fcc.gov/ownership/rules.html
The core of the problem the American public is facing is not, however, an issue for the FCC. Our problem is far too insidious for some federal commission to deal with…
The twisted doctrinal system of the state encourages greed – fiscal dominance at any cost… People can go hungry, homeless, bankrupt and broken; without pensions, retirement options, healthcare or hope; and it doesn’t matter – just as long as the next quarterly report doesn’t make any shareholders too nervous. Corporations, remember, are legal entities, “juristic persons,” in fact. “Juristic personhood” (also called “corporate personhood”) gives a multi-faceted, multi-member institution the right to act as a single entity. And when this single entity is an absolutely indestructible juggernaut of finance, it is rarely stopped from moving ever-forward. Even when it is at all slowed (as in being confronted with FCC cross-ownership regulations) the obstacle is usually a temporary hindrance; one that will soon be overcome by some rigorous lobbying… A practice as retched as any suit-and-tie-draped debacle of treacherous palm-greasing.
The examples are boundless… Hundreds of juristic persons marauding through the international community, raping and pillaging. Pirates, the lot of them; but without the internal anarchic-democratic ideals.
In 1994, as a result of the Baker vs. Exxon suit, Exxon (now Exxon/Mobile) was ordered to pay $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages stemming from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Exxon/Mobile has been tying this case up with appeals since the first ruling; and they have yet to pay anything. Despite the fact that Exxon/Mobile has recovered significant portions of its cleanup expenditures through insurance claims, this juristic person believes punitive damages are not justified, since the whole thing was an accident (an accident caused by possible alcohol impairment, incompetence and failure to supervise, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board). Exxon/Mobile is fighting dirty – pun intended – in order to avoid appearing ‘weak’ and easily coerced by outside pressures in the eyes of its shareholders. Drawing a blow to its profits – which, since the oil spill, have climbed higher than any US company – is also unacceptable. And, as if it mattered, the initial punitive damages figure amounted to a bit more than one-eighth of the corporation’s total yearly profit in 2006. And when a corporation’s profits total $39.5 billion in a single year, it becomes difficult to view their flurry of appeals (against paying damages for what amounts to negligence) as anything but near-malicious greed.
The infamous Bhopal disaster on December 3, 1984 is another shining example of corporate avarice and outright negligence in the face of impending disaster. The plethora of cost-cutting measures implemented by the juristic person in question – Union Carbide – is very well documented. The short story is this: Union Carbide built a plant in which to make the insecticide, carbaryl, or Sevin, using a chemical called MIC (this chemical’s presence also a cost-cutting measure). The plant – despite the failed attempts of authorities to convince Union Carbide not to – was built near a well-populated area in the city of Bhopal in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The market for pesticides was weakening quickly and, thus, the conditions within the Bhopal plant suffered… Leaky pipes were ignored (i.e. workers were told not to fix them), workers were not trained properly, safety and maintenance manuals were only available in English, workers’ complaints to their unions were ignored and promotions were halted.
In addition to this, no action plan was drafted for an incident of the magnitude of the disaster, and none of the city’s authorities were even informed of the amount of hazardous chemicals in storage at the plant. Mechanical problems were abound throughout, including, but not limited to, a flare tower that was improperly designed but not working anyway, a steam boiler that was not functional (even though it was supposed to clean pipes), and, in order to reduce energy costs, the refrigeration unit keeping the MIC cool was left idle, allowing the chemical to build in volatility and the pressure at which it was stored to increase. The MIC, according to Carbide’s manual, was safely stored at 4.5 degrees Celsius, but it was at 20. All these factors were directly linked to the explosion that occurred and the disaster that followed. Upon the gas’s immediate release, between 2,500 and 5,000 people were killed. To date, approximately 20,000 people have died as a direct result of the incident; and continue to die from the effects at a rate of one-per-day.
Today, Union Carbide (now owned by the DOW chemical company) denies any responsibility for the incident, claiming it was sabotage undertaken by a single employee. Carbide also claims that the Indian government knows the identity of this lone saboteur but, alas, no arrest or conviction. Carbide has never admitted wrongdoing or neglect on its part, nor has it acted to clean up the tons of toxic waste that still contaminate the area around and in the plant. Settlement payments have been made, totaling about 3 percent of the sum claimed in the lawsuit, but the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal continues to fight toward what it sees as an appropriate response from Carbide which, now, is essentially, DOW.
DOW has stated publicly several times that the settlement payments made by Carbide have fulfilled its financial responsibilities to the disaster relief effort. Still, however, the cleanup has not happened and the toxic waste stagnates inside a city. The DOW chemical company is the second largest chemical company in the world. In 2006 its net income was $3.724 billion; it’s total revenue, $49.124 billion. Toxic waste, toxic greed.
In terms of market capitalization, General Electric is the second largest corporation in the world – Exxon/Mobile being the largest. Yearly, General Electric hauls in $163.4 billion in revenue; and it’s net income is $20.829 billion. General Electric is huge. According to the Political Economy Research Institute, GE is the ‘fourth-largest corporate producer of air pollution in the United States, with more than 4.4 million pounds per year of toxic chemicals released into the air.’ Fantastic. And what’s even more fantastic is how agreeable GE has been when it comes to cleaning up its messes. The shear number of fines GE has paid (all minuscule when compared to the company’s income) relating to environmental havoc is staggering. An excellent time-line can be found here:
The point I’ve used so many tangents to make is actually fairly simple… Private corporations do whatever, whenever, wherever and to whomever and to whatever they need in order to continue making more money. Any roadblocks such behemoths of capital may encounter during their respective plunders are easily surmounted by way of settlements, lawsuits, political axle grease or outright criminality. ‘Gain wealth forgetting all but self,’ such is the motto of the juristic person.
Whatever diversity still exists in commercial news coverage would be in colossal danger – is in colossal danger if the cross-ownership regulations are further relaxed. Can you not imagine monopoly on the ‘newspaper?’ Perhaps, eventually, three or four nationally distributed news dailies will be your only choices. Every little company clamoring to buy some ad space in the ‘arts and entertainment’ section of highly publicized, strictly censored, state-sponsored journals of mindlessness and uniformity. Objective information and debatable opinion will be subverted and replaced with party-line drivel, neatly picked, clipped, primped and pimped; and sent right to our front doors, where its excrement will fester in the folds of our brains.
After the cross-ownership restrictions are relaxed – and they will be, I think, by any means necessary – the privatization of the internet will not be close behind; in fact, it may coincide with the relaxation. The consolidation and subsequent censorship of information is the greatest threat to [the possibility of] social democracy facing us today. Deterring [true] democracy has always been the aim of America’s big businesses. And, as Noam Chomsky and other astute observers have pointed out (although it should be obvious and, in turn, actionable), “the US is a business-run society,” and the business of consolidation and misinformation is not only lucrative, but also ideologically crucial. Steps can be taken to work against this sinister black tide of contamination and totalitarianism; but to allow juristic persons ownership over more and more of our media outlets is – as Byron Dorgan put it – “an unbelievably bad step.” I am inclined to believe, however, that it is too late for all of us. Americans are nothing if not complacent in this, the early twenty-first century… Although, maybe a more appropriate description would be ‘bludgeoned, bruised and defeated.’ Curl up, shut up and keep your eyes glued to all those televised diversions… Embrace fascism, because it is here.
– John Slaney