Howard Dean is asking for media trouble.
On Dec. 1, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination went where few national politicians have dared to go — directly challenging the media conglomerates.
Don’t get me wrong. Dean’s record in Vermont hardly reflects an inclination to take on corporate power. His obsession with balancing budgets and coddling big business often led him to comfort the already comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Low-income people suffered the consequences of inadequate social services.
But let’s give the doctor-turned-politician some credit for a new direction. Midway through his Dec. 1 appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball” show, Dean said that he wants to “break up giant media enterprises.”
Dean went well beyond the hold-the-line stance adopted last summer by large majorities in Congress, who voted to prevent more media deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission. He declared that maintaining the media status quo isn’t good enough.
“Eleven companies in this country control 90 percent of what ordinary people are able to read and watch on their television,” Dean said. “That’s wrong. We need to have a wide variety of opinions in every community.”
Host Chris Matthews asked whether Dean would “break up these conglomerations of power” — specifically “large media enterprises.” The candidate replied: “The answer to that is yes. I would say that there is too much penetration by single corporations in media markets all over this country.”
Dean added a comment that could be echoed in communities across the nation: “We need locally-owned radio stations. There are only two or three radio stations left in the state of Vermont where you can get local news anymore. The rest of it is read and ripped from the AP.”
Pressing for more clarity about Dean’s presidential agenda, Matthews asked: “Are you going to break up the giant media enterprises in this country?”
“Yes, we’re going to break up giant media enterprises,” Dean responded. Moments later he went on: “What we’re going to do is say that media enterprises can’t be as big as they are today. I don’t think we actually have to break them up, which Teddy Roosevelt had to do with the leftovers from the McKinley administration. … If the state has an interest — which it does — in preserving democracy, then there has to be a limitation on how deeply the media companies can penetrate every single community. To the extent of even having two or three or four outlets in a single community, that kind of information control is not compatible with democracy.”
That kind of talk is not compatible with media oligarchy.
As it happened, Dean was appearing on a cable channel partly owned by General Electric, which possesses the NBC network and many other outlets. His remarks were certain to raise hackles in the corporate boardrooms of GE and huge media firms such as AOL Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and News Corp.
Regardless of ideology, the top man in the White House has always been afraid of the broadcasting industry. While sometimes clashing with reporters, editors and even media owners, each president has routinely gone along with the handover of the “public” airwaves to private interests.
When radio was becoming a mass medium in the late 1920s and early ’30s, newspaper owners extended their investments into profitable radio stations. Media magnates made deals in high governmental places.
Greasing the wheels was the fact that elected officials wanted radio networks to air their speeches. Among the politicians aiding the media barons was President Franklin Roosevelt, who needed the radio chains to broadcast his fireside chats.
Seventy years ago, on Nov. 30, 1933, a syndicated column by Washington watchdogs Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen explained: “A secret move is on foot to perpetuate the present monopoly which the big broadcasting companies have on the choice wavelengths.” Corporate backers of the landmark Communications Act of 1934, setting up the FCC, proceeded to steamroller over strong grassroots opposition from educators, religious leaders, farmers’ groups and labor unions.
In recent decades, many right-wing politicians — including Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — have postured as foes of media elitism while boosting the fortunes of various media elites.
Howard Dean’s recent comments may turn out to be a fleeting excursion into criticism of media monopolization in the United States. But if Dean continues to raise sharp questions about media diversity and democracy, he is likely to face the wrath of a corporate media behemoth that does not tolerate major threats to its outsized power.
NORMAN SOLOMON’s weekly syndicated column is archived at www.fair.org/media-beat. His latest book, co-authored with Reese Erlich, is “Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You.”