Beat Radio

July 24, 1997

Commentary: Channel giveaway blackout is abuse of media power

William Safire/New York Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The use of government power to remain in power is an abuse of power. That insult to democracy was the essence of the Watergate scandal a generation ago and is at the core of today's campaign finance scandal.

In the same way, the broadcast media's use of their power to protect themselves from competition and to enrich themselves at public expense is an abuse of media power.

This week, we are seeing (though not on television) the broadcast lobby's triumph in Congress. Behind closed doors of House-Senate conferences, finishing touches are being put on the most blatant example of corporate welfare: the multibillion-dollar giveaway of our digital airwaves.

Because TV stations dictate local coverage, the broadcast lobby strikes bipartisan terror in officeholders' hearts. Fearful of the value put on channels by the recent auctions of parts of the spectrum, the broadcasters' trade association and its 10 major players hired 174 registered lobbyists, from Tommy Boggs and Ann Richards on the left to Haley Barbour and Tom Korologos on the right.

To such skilled persuasion, add cold cash: In the past two years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, this portion of the lobby's "spectrum grabbers" donated $7.6 million to federal campaigns and party committees.

This week's payoff is sweet. Broadcasters who already have been given, at no cost, a monopoly to broadcast on an old, analogue frequency are being given -- free -- six channels on the high-definition, digital spectrum that belongs to the public. No other lobby in this budget-balancing era can proudly point to such a taxpayer ripoff, worth billions. It's like giving Yellowstone National Park to timber companies.

To justify this historic heist, the lobby and its wholly owned subsidiary, Rep. Billy Tauzin, piously claim to be merely making sure that owners of present-day sets get today's fuzzy signals a decade from now. In that way, broadcasters would keep their original channel so long as one set owner in 20 doesn't convert -- which means forever.

With Bob Dole replaced as majority leader by broadcaster-friendly Trent Lott, one lone senator tried to resist the giveaway. John McCain, R-Ariz., was flattened by the broadcast lobby's steamroller; as he puts it, "my record on this is unblemished by victory."

McCain is becoming the patron saint of mavericks. By pushing for liability reform, he invites the fury of the trial lawyers' lobby; by sponsoring campaign finance reform, he irritates GOP pols; by attacking the ethanol subsidy, he hurts his chances in an Iowa caucus; and by resisting the thundering herd of broadcast lobbyists -- 29 from CBS alone -- he jeopardizes the television exposure needed for any national campaign.

"What troubles me," McCain says, "is that the voters never got a clear picture of this giveaway on television. 'The Fleecing of America,' 'It's Your Money' -- where were they?"

The only spectrum piece I saw on NBC ridiculed the failure of one auction, with no reference to the many other public auctions of licenses that tripled expectations.

Reed Hundt, outgoing chairman of the Federal Communications Commission -- a Gore man, but market-oriented -- has been against giving the broadcasting moguls a free ride into the financial future. "It's bad enough that broadcasters are being given both digital and analogue channels in perpetuity, without paying money or in-kind," he says. "Worse is that there have been no major televised discussions of the issue. The No. 1 missing piece in the puzzle is, why wasn't this story about TV covered on TV?"

Your favorite news anchors, network and local, and your high-rated magazine shows did not conspire to suppress coverage of the grab of public assets by their employers. Nothing so dramatic.

They, and their producers, and the owners of their stations (which often include newspapers) simply failed in their obligation to fully report, and to seek adversarial comment on, the triumph of the broadcast lobby.

Media power pressured and paid government officials to protect and extend media monopolies. Journalists must ask ourselves: Where were we during this abuse of power?

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