Okay, it's now hundreds of thousands of words past the WorldCom bankruptcy, with the media might of this great nation devoted to explaining it all to you, and there are still six words I cannot find anywhere _ the Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996. Don't you think that's carrying our famously ahistorical journalism a little too far?
When the cause of a disaster is a mere six years back in time, surely even American journalists can dredge up a twinge or two of memory. For those of you not afflicted by Alzheimer's in recent years, Bob McChesney, the media critic and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sums it up nicely: "The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was one of the most important of the last 50 years. It was also the most corrupt and undemocratic bill of the time: It was of, by and for special interests. Most of the congresspeople who voted for it didn't even know what they were voting on."
He understates. The bill was actually written by industry lobbyists, each of the several components of telecom snarling at one another like wolves over a piece of meat as they ripped up 70 years worth of regulatory experience. The wolves united once the bill hit the floor to push it through. We few, we happy few, who raised hell about it at the time had it condescendingly explained to us that the magic of the marketplace would take care of all our doubts.
Here's what the magic has done in just one area. Before Reagan, a radio company could own 12 stations nationally and no more than two in any one market. After the first round of de-reg in the '80s, that was changed to no more than 28 nationally and no more than four in one market. The '96 law changed that to as many as you could acquire nationally and eight in one market. The result, we were told, would be increased competition. Sure.
Since then, almost two-thirds of American radio stations have been bought, always by ever-larger entities. Clear Channel owns 1,200 stations nationally and two or three companies (they're always merging) own almost all of them. In all the major cities, we are down to a duopoly or triopoly in radio.
Here's the result in terms of the great variety, the let-100-flowers bloom they promised would accompany this flowering of competition: Clear Channel moves into a city and rents, say, a floor of a building, which is mostly a sales office but also has eight little closets for eight radio stations. The Play List is shipped in from headquarters and is the same all over the country, for Top 40 or Easy Listening or country _ we have less and less sense of our localities, of our regional music, fewer opportunities for new talent. Actually, they've ruined radio. As any serious country fan can tell you, you can't find good music on the radio anymore.
That's just the radio piece of the bill _ the rest is even more horrible, but Sen. Russ Feingold has introduced a bill that would fix much of the problem with radio. The '96 bill explicitly deregulated both radio and telephone cable. The bill told the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate the rest of it. Before the '96 act, the phone companies were under the AT&T consent deal of 1984 that said AT&T couldn't do local service and the Baby Bells couldn't do long distance. In the '96 season of piggery, thuggery, greed and stupidity, we were told that deregulation would give us increased competition, prices would drop, service would improve dramatically.
In '96, there were 12 big companies in the field _ it's now down to six and dropping like a stone. Prices are up, service is worse, AND the '96 act opened the door for precisely the sleazy, rotten behavior we have witnessed with Global Crossing and WorldCom.
Now connect the dag-nabbit, bobberty-doggin' dots here. This is not a business scandal. WorldCom is not just a corporate failure. This is about government. The government of this country has been bought by campaign contributions from corporate special interests. This is about the nexus between big corporations and government, the American keiretsu, the Establishment.
From Washington, we hear nothing but petty, provincial yapping over whether this hurts the R's or the D's. The R's blame it all on Bill Clinton, the D's blame it all on the greedhead Republican Congress. But this is about much more than the next election.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. Because if we don't, it's going to get worse. The FCC is now chaired by the antiregulation Michael Powell, who is determined to do for newspapers and television what has already been done to radio and cable.
+ Molly Ivins is a columnist for Creators Syndicate. +