A May Day Message to the FCC

Text of remarks delivered at the Federal Communications Commission Hearing on Media Ownership Rules at the City Hall, San Francisco, Saturday April 27th, 2003.

My name is IAIN BOAL. I am a historian of science and technics, with a longtime interest both in radio and in the history of enclosure and privatization. I have stood once before in such a room, some eight years ago, in Washington DC, during the effort to derail the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which quite predictably led to a vast plunder of the public airwaves.

The jackals are back again – this time to scavenge for what is left of the carcass. The hearings were a travesty then; now they have the makings of a farce. There is only one commissioner here today; Chairman Powell has not seen fit to show himself to the people of Northern California. Nor have the rest of the commission. None of the corporate interests poised to profit from the new ruling has bothered to show up either; the fix is already in. They should know; they paid for it.

The people, on the other hand, have turned up, and in some numbers; the hall is full to overflowing. This public comment period is, it might be said, just another ludicrous symptom of the grotesque constriction of the public realm, a parody of the network soundbite – the polyphony of voices reduced to videotaped snatches of vox pop in a broom closet (for viewing “later” by the FCC), to invitations to “fill out” 3 by 5 postcards, to one hundred and twenty seconds of “feedback” permitted at this microphone – no doubt a veritable eternity in the context of Viacom and Clear Channel programming. Our moderator was about right when she called these proceedings, quite without irony, ”your two cents worth”.

But despite the elements of farce, and in the wake of the predictable looting of public assets sanctioned by the 1996 Act, there is finally a movement building of people who well understand what is happening here, and what is at stake. The FCC is not the cause of this disaster; in its current condition it is just another symptom. For that reason I do not address the FCC or other specialists in capitalist regulation. I just want to say one thing, as we approach Mayday, to those both inside this chamber and those locked outside in the hallway, to those listening on KPOO and KPFA, and to all who intend harm to the system of state-sponsored private tyrannies that calls itself “free enterprise”, that even dares to call itself “democracy”.

The flourishing of life in this city, in this country and, I dare say, around the planet, now depends on the reappropriation of the commons, and that includes – because the means of communication without limits is the very condition of possibility of all else – the seizing back of the electromagnetic spectrum, the de-commodification of the airwaves. Affected as we all were this morning by the eloquent testimony of Professor Bagdikian, dean of critics of media monopolization, what really is the difference between a mediascape owned by twenty or six or two masters? Another degree of oligopoly is hardly the point. Regulation at this stage is disreputable; it is like demanding regulation of the slave-quarters, instead of abolition. The 1934 Act was bad enough; the1996 Telecommunications Act is a scandal. The whole thing stinks; the corpse is rotten. Let us take it out for burial, and start over.

Perhaps Commissioner Adelstein will take this news back to Washington, to his fellow commissioners and to his focus groups. There are thousands in San Francisco, and millions around the world – many of us recently in the streets on related business – who have rumbled the claptrap about “the market”, who know that its more accurate name is the “anti-market”, and who recognize the lethal connections between the so-called market, concentrated media ownership, and untrammeled militarism. That is why there are connections between the “anti-globalization” and the “anti-war” movements, and, as I now see, historical links to an earlier moment of reaction, the high tide of parliamentary deregulation and enclosure, when in the bitter aftermath of a devastating imperialist war, the poet Shelley, enraged by reports of a police riot against defenseless protesters, composed the indelibly encouraging words: “We are many; they are few”.

Iain A. Boal, an Irish social historian of science and technics, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at: iboal@socrates.Berkeley.EDU


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