Thomas Jefferson is arguably the most learned, literate and quotable of all American presidents. He is also likely to have been the last person on earth who knew virtually everything there was to know. From architecture, structural engineering, agronomy and the law to science, Hebrew, Greek and religion [indeed, The Jefferson Bible is still in print], America's third president was a man without peer.
Indeed, at a 1962 White House dinner which President Kennedy hosted in honor of 49 American Nobel laureates, one of the guests suggested, " . . . there must be more intelligence gathered under this roof tonight than ever before."
"Yeah," Kennedy replied, "except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
Jefferson also kept up a lively correspondence with literally thousands of people from around the world. One of his favorite "pen pals " was the Dutch statesman G[isjbert] K[arel] graaf van Hogendorp [1762-1834]. In a 1785 letter to van Hogendorp, Jefferson waxed eloquently on one of his favorite topics -- the importance of a free, unfettered press:
"[A despotic government] always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters [sic] who, without any regard to truth or what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the masses of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper."
Jefferson's most famous quote on the subject was encapsulated in a mere thirty words:
"Were if left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
I have not a scintilla of doubt that were he alive today, the "Sage of Monticello" would be leading the charge against Federal Communication Commission Chair Kevin J. Martin's attempt to further consolidate American media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer giant corporations. Jefferson would be everywhere -- on editorial pages, the Internet, television and radio -- warning and railing against what Mr. Martin has been cooking up while we, the American public have been sleeping.
What are we talking about?
FCC Chair Martin has proposed to, "Do away with media ownership rules that bar companies from owning both newspaper and a television or radio station at the same time." In 2003, Martin, a former member of the Bush-Cheney transition team and general counsel for their 2000 campaign, tried to do the same thing; his effort was overturned in the landmark Prometheus v. FCC decision. In its ruling, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to throw out the FCC's attempt to raise the limits of cross-ownership of media. The Supreme Court later turned down an appeal; the FCC was ordered to "reconfigure how it justifies raising ownership limits."
So what's the problem?
Well, in brief, the problem is that in 1983, approximately 50 corporations controlled a majority of U.S. media -- that is, newspapers, magazines, books, TV and radio stations, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies. By 2004, the last year for which accurate information is available, the number had shrunk to but 5 . . . count 'em, 5 corporations. For those who are interested, these unholy 5 are: Time Warner, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmenn of Germany, and Viacom [formally CBS]. General Electric's NBC is a close 6th.
Commissioner Martin's proposal -- which will go into effect on December 11 unless we raise the roof beams of dissent -- would not only increase multi-national corporate control over much of what is seen and heard, but also contribute to the stifling of alternate opinion and free speech.
In other words, more and more happy-talk "news stories" about Paris, Brittany and O.J., and less and less about the vital issues of the day. In other words, more and more uncritical, unvetted White House handouts on "all the success we're making in Iraq" and the absolute need to make tax cuts permanent, and less and less hard-hitting, critical news.
According to the way things are supposed to work, the FCC must hold public hearings before a proposal of this magnitude can take effect. And while it must be said that Commissioner Martin has abided by the letter of the law, he has given an enormous, cynical raspberry to its very spirit.
Case in point, Seattle, November 9, 2007. On that day, with an absolute bare minimum of advance legal notice, Martin and his fellow FCC commissioners held a public hearing in Seattle. The presumption was that they were there to hear and receive citizen input. More than a thousand people showed up at the hearing, the vast majority of whom were solidly against consolidation. Martin, to the shock of two of the commissioners -- Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein -- turned a deaf ear to the thousand protesting voices, and announced the next day that he was going ahead with his dangerous plan.
What ever happened to "We the People?"
Martin's proposal, which, as mentioned above, is scheduled to take effect on December 11, is but one more instance of the selling -- indeed, the raping -- of America. This dastardly plan has been orchestrated while we, the American public has seemingly been asleep. The Martin/Bush/Cheney plan is but another in a series of "early Christmas gifts" to corporate America. Given an unfettered hand, the administration will privatize as much of America as possible, thus leaving we, the great American public, to be washed, folded, reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned by an oligarchy that prays at the divine altar of greed.
But wait, there is more!
Even as I write this piece, the FCC is meeting to vote on whether it will consider applying "broad regulations" to a cable television industry that has been largely unregulated at the federal level for more than 20 years. It should come as no surprise that Martin's latest proposal has provoked furious opposition from the cable industry. On the surface, Martin's reasoning is sound: by regulating the industry, consumers will eventually benefit through lower monthly rates. Just beneath the surface, however, lurks Martin's real interest: forcing cable outlets to remove "immoral" programs; to sanitize and homogenize what is available.
I don't get it. This is an administration that continually rails against federal involvement in everything from health care to curbing greenhouse gases, while at the time pushing for greater federal involvement in what we watch, who we marry, and what say we have in our personal lives.
So what can we do?
Three weeks ago, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan and 10 co-sponsors [including Democratic presidential candidates Biden, Clinton, Dodd and Obama, and Republican senators Lott and Snowe] put Senate bill 2332 into the hopper. This measure seeks to head off the FCC's consolidation plans by promoting "transparency in the adoption of new media ownership rules by the FCC, and to establish an independent panel to make recommendations on how to increase the representation of women and minorities in broadcast media ownership." As of today -- November 27, 2007 -- it is sitting in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, chaired by Senator Daniel Inouye [D-HI]. And there it will languish, unless we do something about it.
Anyone who wishes to have a say about precisely who owns this nation's media, can sign a petition by logging on to
One can also send letters to local papers and representatives in Congress. I sent a letter just last week to Florida Senator Bill Nelson, and today received a note from him saying that he has become a co-sponsor of Senator Dorgan's bill.
This is simply too important an issue to let slip by while we are sleeping.
We will close with a last thought from Jefferson -- this from a letter he wrote to Lafayette in 1823:
"The only security of all is a free press. [When it] is completely silenced . . . all means of a general effort [are] taken away. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
© 2007 Kurt F. Stone