Senator Bernie Sanders joined Bill Moyers last week to discuss why Big Media is a threat to democracy and what citizens can do to fight back.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Sometimes we can see the universe in a grain of sand, as the old saying goes, but nowadays a graphic chart more vividly reveals the world we live in. Take a look at this statistical snapshot of the media ecology that largely determines what you and I see, read, and hear.
In 1983, 50 corporations controlled a majority of media in America. In 1990 the number had dropped to 23. In 1997, 10. And today, six.
There you have it. The fistful of multinational conglomerates that own the majority of media in America. What do we call it when a few firms dominate the market? Oligopoly. Doesn’t quite rhyme with democracy. But today, believe it or not, big media is about to get even bigger, unless the public stands up and says “No!” Here’s the story.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — the FCC, the agency of government created by Congress to protect the public’s rightful ownership of the airwaves — is reportedly asking the other four commissioners to suspend the rule preventing a company from owning a newspaper and radio and TV stations in the same big city. Thus he would give the massive media companies free rein to devour more of the competition. The chairman is Julius Genachowski, appointed to the job by President Barack Obama. Now, the FCC tried to pull this same stunt under a Republican chairman back in the second term of George W. Bush, but at hearings held around the country an angry public fought back.
WOMAN: We told you a year ago when you came to Seattle that media consolidation is a patently bad idea. No ifs ands or buts about it. So with all due respect I ask you, what part of that didn’t you understand?
MAN: I’m a Republican and I’m a capitalist, but some areas of our private sector must be regulated. Freedom of information is too important, we must be proactive in protecting that fundamental freedom.
WOMAN #2: If the FCC is here wanting to know if Chicago’s residents are being well served, the answer is no. If local talent is being covered, the answer is no. If community issues are being treated sensitively, the answer is no. If minority groups are getting the coverage and input that they need, the answer is no. The answer is no.
WOMAN #3: If you will not stand up for we the people, then I have news for you. We the people are standing up for ourselves. This is our media, and we are taking it back.
BILL MOYERS: An estimated three million Americans wrote the FCC and Congress to protest giving big media more power, and the Senate passed a resolution against the proposal. When the FCC tried again, a federal court of appeals blocked it, demanding the Commission report on how the new rule would impact media ownership by minorities and women. Back then, Senator Barack Obama opposed the FCC’s proposal. So did Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But now, President Obama’s man at the FCC – they were friends in law school – apparently wants to do what the Republicans couldn’t do under President Bush, and to do it behind the scenes, out of sight, with no public hearings.
Several public interest groups, civil rights organizations and labor unions opposed the move, and last week, Senator Bernie Sanders and several of his colleagues called on Chairman Genachowski to hold off. Bernie Sanders is an outspoken opponent of media consolidation. He sees it as a threat to democracy. Once the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he served l6 years in the House of Representatives and was recently re-elected to his second term in the Senate. He’s the longest serving independent in the history of Congress. He was in New York earlier this week and we met for this interview.
Welcome. Good to see you again.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Good to be with you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: This is a strong letter, inspired one of your colleagues in the Senate says, by you. What’s the beef?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: What the chairman of the FCC is now talking about is making a bad situation much worse by loosening up the cross-ownership rules, which means now that a media giant, one of the big companies, whether it’s Murdoch’s News Corp. or anyone else, will be able to own major television stations, a newspaper, and radio stations within a given community. And that means people are just not going to be hearing different points of view.
BILL MOYERS: I brought with me a story from “The New York Times” that drives home the point you’re making. It begins with a dateline out of San Angelo, Texas. “Call a reporter at the CBS television station here, and it might be an anchor for the NBC station who calls back. Or it might be the news director who runs both stations’ news operations. The stations here compete for viewers, but they cooperate in gathering the news — maintaining technically separate ownership, [and] sharing office space, news video, and even the scripts written for their nightly news anchors.”
And here’s this, “The same kind of sharing takes place in dozens of other cities, from Burlington, Vermont,” your home state, “where the Fox and ABC stations sometimes share anchors, to Honolulu, where the NBC and CBS stations broadcast the same morning [news].” Is that what you’re talking about?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I can tell you that when I was mayor of that same city, Burlington, Vermont, we used to hold press conferences. You would have four or five or six different radio stations showing up. You know, we’d be talking about the school board or the city council local issues. Now if we’re lucky we’ll have one radio station showing up. And that’s true all over the United States of America. And the point here is not right wing or even left wing. The point is that the tendency of corporate America is not to discuss at length the real issues that impact ordinary people. If you owned a television station, for example, do you think you’d be talking about the impact that Citizens United has on the American political system, when you’re receiving huge amounts of money because of Citizens United? If you are General Electric, which has been a major outsourcer of jobs to China and other countries, do you think you’re going to be talking about trade policy in the United States of America or maybe nuclear power in the United States of America?
BILL MOYERS: But this puzzles me. The FCC tried to do essentially the same thing four years ago, as you know, in the last year of the Bush Administration. And the Senate went on record against it. You passed a strong resolution to say, “This far and no further.” Why would President Obama’s FCC chairman, try to do now what the Republicans couldn’t do then?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: That is a very good question, Bill. And I don’t have the answer. And it’s not only that the Senate passed a strong resolution. There were public hearings. And there was the opportunity for the public to give input into this decision making process. And huge numbers of people said, “Wait a second, we do not need more media consolidation in America.” Senate came on record. So why the Obama Administration is doing something that the Bush Administration failed to do is beyond my understanding. And we’re going to do everything we can to prevent it from happening.
BILL MOYERS: You may remember that back in 2007, your then senatorial colleague, Barack Obama wrote a strong letter to the Republican chairman of the FCC who wanted to change the rules, just like Genachowski is doing now. And he condemned the very tactics that his own FCC chairman is employing today.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely. And we hope the president will get involved in this issue. So I don’t– to be honest with you, I don’t know the internal dynamics of why what is happening is happening. I know you got a couple of Republicans on the board, who are very sympathetic to moving forward toward more consolidation. But why Genachowski is taking the position he is, I don’t know. But I think it would be very helpful. And we will try to get the president to remember what he said four or five years ago.
BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that you recall these hearings that were held across the country. There was a lot of people, there were a lot of people attending. There was a lot of anger at those hearings. Three million of those folks wrote letters to the Senate and the FCC. There doesn’t seem to be the opposition this time. What has changed?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, what’s changed is they’re moving quickly and quietly and secretly. And I think there has not been the kind of attention that we need to focus on this issue. And I think Genachowski is smart enough to know that that is not what he wants. What the Bush people learned is that when you open this up to public discussion, very few people in America think it’s a good idea for fewer and fewer conglomerates to own more and more of the media, especially in a number of cities. So they’re apparently trying to move this under the radar screen. And that’s something we’re going to try to halt.
BILL MOYERS: Are you calling for public hearings on this?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely. No, we’re going to do everything that we can to involve the public in this. The idea, I mean, even, let’s give credit to the Bush administration. They came up with a terrible idea, but at least I think they had about a half a dozen public meetings. They allowed the public to write into the FCC.
BILL MOYERS: And the last time the FCC tried to do this, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered the commission to hold up, that it should first evaluate the impact of any rule changes on the ownership by females and minority. What impact do you think this new rule would have on minority and women in the media?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, the truth is that right now, in terms of minorities and women, there is relatively, an embarrassing little amount of ownership. No one doubts that if you move to a situation where corporate America, the big guys, own more and more of the media, it will mean that minorities and women and those folks who don’t have big bucks are going to be squeezed even further to the periphery. So it will be bad for minorities. It will be bad for women. And most significantly, it will be bad for American democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Some people argue that newspapers are failing anyway. That they’re going under, losing advertising, cutting their staffs, losing their readership. And that it would be a good thing for these big, profitable corporations like GE and Murdoch’s News Corporation to take them over and subsidize them, the same way Rupert Murdoch does the tabloid “New York Post” here in New York. How do you respond to that?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think the issue that the FCC has got to worry about is not the economics of newspapers but what media means and does for the American people. And if you talk about cost effectiveness, yes, I suppose it is true that if you have one company that owns dozens of television stations and newspapers and radio stations, they could do it more, quote unquote, “cost effectively.”
What’s the logical conclusion of that argument? Maybe we should have one entity, maybe Rupert Murdoch should own all media in America. He can do it very, very cost effectively. Is that what we want? The FCC is not dealing with widget production. It is dealing with the issue of how we create a vibrant democracy, where people hear all points of view and can come up with the best decisions that we can as a nation.
BILL MOYERS: Would that be your response to the argument that the other side makes that the FCC is strangling, with slow regulations, America’s competitiveness in the world? And that if we continue to tighten these regulations, they will not be able to find their places in the in the world market?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Bill, do you know where I heard that exact same explanation, defense? I heard it when Wall Street wanted deregulation. “We have to be competitive in the entire global economy. Let’s deregulate Wall Street so we can compete internationally.”
I don’t believe that for a second. Look, the issue is we live in a country where millions of people really have not had the opportunity to learn about the dynamics of what goes on in American society. Major, major issues literally, get very, very little discussion. So the bottom line for the FCC has got to be, “How do we create a situation in which the American people are hearing a diverse range of ideas so that our public world has the kind of debate that it needs?”
BILL MOYERS: But what about the argument that people make that the internet, the thriving of the internet, let a billion opinions bloom diminishes the tyranny of monopoly?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Let me respond to that in two ways. A) The internet is enormously important. It is growing. But the bottom line is that most people today still get their information from television and from radio.
BILL MOYERS: Seventy-four percent, I believe–
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: There you go. So maybe– second of all, when you go to the internet, what websites do you think people are going to? They’re going to the same websites owned by “The New York Times” or CNN or Time Warner. Those are the largest websites in the country. And people are getting their information from the same folks. So yes, I think it’s the internet plays an important role, but that is not a valid reason to allow for more media consolidation.
BILL MOYERS: In a practical sense, Rupert Murdoch owns “The Wall Street Journal,” the “New York Post,” which he subsidizes, $50 to $60 million a year, we read. What would it mean if he were able, under this rule, to buy the “Chicago Tribune” and the “Los Angeles Times”?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: And he owns Fox Television, of course.
BILL MOYERS: Of course.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: I think, I mean again, it’s not to just pick on Murdoch. I think the idea that one person, who, in this case, happens to be a right-wing billionaire, can have that much influence in media is very dangerous for our democracy. And by the way, of course, in terms of Murdoch he owns a lot of media in Australia, in the United Kingdom. I believe he owns media in Eastern Europe.
I think this is a pretty dangerous trend. You know, the bottom line is that when you have a situation like that, it really influences not just what the American people think and feel, how they vote, but the issues that the United States Congress deal with every day. Let me give you an example, all right? Is deficit reduction a serious issue? It is. I’m in the middle of that debate right now.
But you know what is a more serious issue according to the American people? The need to create millions and millions of jobs. Now how often are you turning on TV and saying, “Hey, we’re in the middle of a terrible recession. It is, we have 15 percent real unemployment or underemployment in America. We’ve got to create millions of jobs.” That’s what working people are saying, but the big money interests are saying, “Oh, we’ve got to cut Social Security. We’ve got to cut Medicare. We’ve got to cut Medicaid.” There is no other option. So I give you that just as an example of how corporate media throws out one set of ideas, where the American people are thinking that jobs are probably more important.
BILL MOYERS: It has probably not escaped your attention that the mantra “fiscal cliff, fiscal cliff, fiscal cliff” is played out every night on the evening news and the corporate news. What does that say to you? That you’d get “fiscal cliff, fiscal cliff,” but not “job crisis, job crisis, job crisis”?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: It tells me, quite frankly, that many of these people, who by the way did not have much to say about the deficit when we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and didn’t pay for it, I didn’t hear from any people in the media complaining about that. What it tells me is that behind the corporate drive for deficit reduction is a significant effort to try to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and other programs that working families need, not so much because of deficit reduction, because this has been the agenda of Republicans and right wingers for a very long time.
BILL MOYERS: So how do you see this fiscal debate playing out in the next couple of weeks?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: We have, those of us who say that deficit reduction is a serious issue, I believe it is. But believe very strongly that at a time when we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth, people on top doing phenomenally well, middleclass is disappearing. That most Americans agree with many of us in the Senate, who say, “Yes, we are going to ask the wealthiest people to see an increase in their tax rates. They are going to have to pay more in taxes. We have to end the absurdity of one out of four corporations in America not paying a nickel in taxes. And that we can do deficit reduction in a way that is fair, not on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor.” That is my view. That’s the view of the vast majority of the American people. Do I think that view is being reflected in the corporate media today? No, I don’t think it is.
BILL MOYERS: Quickly, I have been around even longer than you in numbers of years. And I’ve never seen even a good program that can’t be made better by careful and intelligent reform. Isn’t there something to be done about Medicare that would meet the other side and say, “Yes, we’re willing to make these changes because we think these changes are justified”?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: The answer is yes if the challenge was, “How do you make Medicare more efficient and save money for the taxpayers?” For example, the Veterans Administration negotiates drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. Medicare Part D does not. We can save substantial sums of money. There are other ways that you can do it.
Frankly, I’m not quite so sure that given a choice of standing up to the drug companies to lower the cost of Medicare or simply raising the age of Medicare eligibility or cutting back on Medicare, my guess is the Republicans will stand with the drug companies and not with the needs of ordinary people.
BILL MOYERS: What I hear you saying is that whatever your major concern as a citizen, whether it’s deficit reduction or Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security or the environment, global climate change, it all comes back to how we receive information. And that this issue you’re addressing in this letter is at the heart of your–
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Bill, many of the viewers there are concerned about the growing gap, unequal distribution of wealth and income. They’re concerned about health care, concerned about global warming, concerned about women’s rights, health, and many, many other issues.
If you are concerned about those issues, you must be concerned about media and the increased concentration of ownership in the media. Because unless we get ordinary people involved in that discussion. Unless we make media relevant to the lives of ordinary people and not use it as a distraction, we are not going to resolve many of these serious crisis, global warming being one. There are scientists who will come on your show and say, “Hey, forget everything else. If we don’t get a handle on global warming, there’s not going to be much less of this planet in a hundred years.” Do you see that often being portrayed in the corporate media? I fear not.
BILL MOYERS: But it seems unstoppable, Senator. Comcast took over NBC-Universal last year, as you know. And Sinclair Broadcasting just bought seven TV stations, bringing their total to 84 stations in 46 markets. I mean, it seems unstoppable.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, it’s part of the trend in America, not only in media but in industry after industry, where fewer and fewer large conglomerates own those industries. It is a very dangerous trend.
BILL MOYERS: What do you want the FCC to do next?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, for a start, open up the process, get some public discussion, and ultimately rule against this cross-ownership type of approach.
BILL MOYERS: And what do you want ordinary citizens to do? What are you asking the people in Vermont, your home state? You run a lot of town meetings. You do a lot of hearings up there. What do you want ordinary people to do about this?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I want Vermonters and everyone else around this country is to write to the FCC now and say two things. I mean, voice your opinion, but if you think that this is a bad idea, let them know it. And second of all, tell them that under no circumstances can they pass without public input and giving the public the time to get involved in this debate. Look, it is very hard as a public official to go forward and pass the laugh test, when 99 percent of the people who are writing in say, “Hey, you’re proposing a dumb idea.” And when in public hearings, people are coming out in outrage. So I certainly do believe that had a significant impact.
BILL MOYERS: We covered those hearings several years ago. It was amazing the out turning, a thousand people in different cities around the country, at one hearing.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Bill, I mean, despite the lack of media coverage on this issue of media concentration, in people’s guts, people know that this is a huge issue. That we can’t be the democracy we want to be when so few people control what people read, see, and hear. So I think viscerally people know how important it is. And we’ve got to do everything we can to prevent the FCC from moving in the wrong direction.
BILL MOYERS: Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you for being with me and we’ll be after this story, in the weeks to come.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you.