Media in the United States, Part 2

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. Today we present the second part of our report about the American media.

The media in the United States have changed in recent years. For example, in nineteen eighty-four, about fifty companies owned or operated thousands of North American media. They included daily newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and book publishers. In two thousand-two, only six companies owned about the same number of these media.

Companies with large media holdings include the Walt Disney Company, Viacom, Time Warner, General Electric and News Corporation.

The chance to choose among more media pleases many Americans. They enjoy the Internet and cable and satellite. But others protest that some material presented by the media can seem too similar.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to loosen restrictions on media owners. This agency, the F.C.C., supervises the use of the public airwaves. It is responsible to Congress. The F.C.C.’s measures increased the number of media businesses that a company can own or operate in the same area.

But in June, a court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mainly rejected the changes. The Third District Circuit Court of Appeals largely stopped the F.C.C. from easing ownership restrictions.

F.C.C. Chairman Michael Powell called the court’s action “deeply troubling.” Mr. Powell is the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Michael Powell spoke for the majority of the five commission members. The commission said it was considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The F.C.C. rule changes would have ended some restrictions on owners. Those limitations were placed in nineteen seventy-five. They said a single company could own local television stations that reach thirty-five percent of the public. The new limit would have been forty-five percent.

A company called Nielsen Media Research divides the nation into two hundred ten market areas. The new rules would have eased limitations on how many media organizations a company could control in the same market area.

Chairman Powell said new conditions in the American media mean that the nation needs new rules. He pointed to the competition that the broadcast industry faces from newer media. He said this competition means that traditional television broadcasting needs help. Mr. Powell said the changed rules would have provided this protection.

A number of different kinds of activist organizations opposed the rule changes. The National Council of Churches protested to Congress. So did the National Rifle Association, which supports gun ownership rights. More than two million people wrote their objections to the F.C.C. rule changes.

Some activists said the F.C.C. overstated the importance of the Internet as a local news provider. They said this influenced the F.C.C. decision to change the rules. They pointed to a study by the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America. The study asked where people get local news. It showed that sixty-one percent of those asked still read newspapers for community news. This was said to be true although newspapers in general have lost readers in recent years.

Some restrictions on media operations had been loosened much earlier. That happened when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of nineteen ninety-six. Among other changes, the Telecommunications Act affected radio station owners. It also affected those who hold a major financial interest in a station. They received permission to operate up to eight signals in the country’s largest market areas.

Some media companies bought or joined with small local community stations. For example, Clear Channel Communications owned fewer than fifty radio stations before the Telecommunications Act passed. Afterwards, Clear Channel grew to more than one thousand two hundred stations. The company clearly leads American radio. Infinity Broadcasting owns and operates America’s second largest number of radio stations. It owns about one hundred eighty stations.

About one thousand radio stations disappeared after the Telecommunications Act. People in some areas say they miss hearing local sports events. They say they need local weather reports for their safety. But the F.C.C. says stations owned or operated by networks do better with local news and production.

Some critics of the Telecommunications Act also say the measure harmed free speech. For example, Natalie Maines sings with the group Dixie Chicks. She criticized President Bush while performing in London last year. After that, a number of radio stations stopped playing Dixie Chicks music.

Critics say this was censorship, the removal of content that some people or groups dislike. The American Civil Liberties Union is among organizations that say censorship threatens democracy. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution promises free speech. It lets people express themselves without government interference.

Some activists for children are angry about a Supreme Court decision involving freedom of speech on the Internet. Late in June, the court announced that a law called the Child Online Protection Act may be illegal. A court majority said the measure may violate the First Amendment.

Yet American legal tradition does permit limits on free speech. Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of America’s greatest Supreme Court justices. Many years ago, he said that no one has the right, for example, to falsely cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

When citizens protest what they believe is unacceptable material on public airwaves, the F.C.C. can decide to punish media companies. The problem is to judge what is unacceptable. Laws governing the media judge some situations and images to be indecent and offensive to community morals. They also say some words are unacceptable.

The F.C.C. bans obscenity – those bad words -- over public airwaves at all times. But some programs that contain material meant for adults are permitted in the late evening, when children are supposed to be asleep.

A private group, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, recently did a national opinion study of parents. More than half said they are very concerned about the amount of sex and violence their children see on television. Sixty-three percent of parents said they would support stronger limits on what can be shown during early evening hours.

Early this year, hundreds of thousands protested an incident during a half-time show at the Super Bowl football game. Television cameras showed the uncovered breast of singer and dancer Janet Jackson.

Late last month the F.C.C. told the CBS television division of Viacom Incorporated that it owes five hundred fifty thousand dollars in fines for the incident. CBS was given thirty days to appeal the proposed fine.

A network statement expressed regret over the incident. But it also said CBS does not believe it violated indecency laws. The program was produced by MTV, also a property of Viacom. CBS says it did not know that the incident was to take place.

The F.C.C. also has punished Clear Channel Communications for indecency violations on its radio stations. That happened after listeners complained about comments by Howard Stern and other broadcasters. The company says it will pay record fines of one-point-seven-five million dollars for airing the comments.

Clear Channel dropped Mr. Stern's program from six of its stations. But now he is heard in a number of new markets.

[On October sixth, Howard Stern announced that he will move his show to Sirius Satellite Radio in January two thousand six. He said he was "tired of all the censorship." Satellite radio, like cable television, is outside the restrictions of the Federal Communications Commission. The programs do not go over public airwaves, and people pay to receive them.

[The money-losing Sirius says it will spend one hundred million dollars a year in a five-year deal to bring Mr. Stern to its listeners. He currently has an estimated twelve million listeners. About six hundred thousand people pay to receive Sirius programs over special receivers.]

Deciding what is acceptable for the public in the media is a difficult issue. Should total freedom be permitted? Or are some language and images unacceptable?

No one believes these questions will be answered anytime soon. Nor will the issue of how many media a single company may operate in the same area. It seems that there is only one thing sure about use and control of the American media. Debate will continue.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember. And this is Faith Lapidus. To send us e-mail, write to [email protected] And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.