the media


As the "fourth estate" of democracy and the centerpiece of American culture, the media is a frequent battleground between those who'd like the government to control the media more, those who prefer greater freedom for the media and those who, paradoxically, want the government to protect the media's freedom. In recent years, lawmakers have debated how much reporters should be shielded from revealing their sources, how much broadcasters should be fined for naughty content and how much the FCC should restrict media corporations from buying up news sources. On this page, you'll find basics on the last two issues.

Media ownership

Arguing that cable, digital TV and the internet have radically changed the media playing field in the US, the Federal Communications Commission decided in 2003 it was time to loosen the old rules on media ownership (see the chart below). A motley crew of advocates, from MoveOn to the NRA, banded together to stop the 2003 FCC changes (through political pressure and lawsuits) – but Congress ended up easing some of the regulations itself, albeit more gently.

In 2007, a new FCC chair ventured back into media-ownership waters. (NYT) His 2007 proposed changes are modest in comparison; they would allow cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasters in the top 20 media markets, as long as 8 major media voices remained and that the tv station that is cross-owned is not one of the top four. (FCC - pdf) A divided FCC approved the change in December 2007, but some predict it will be challenged in court (WP). Some lawmakers are also looking to turn the regulations back - which they might do as part of the '09 budget process.

The chart below outlines the FCC rules in 2002, FCC's 2003 proposed changes, and Congress' compromise. Except for the new 39% national media cap, all other FCC rules stayed as-is.

FCC Rule

FCC Change

Other Action

A company may own TV media that reaches 35% of national audience

Increased cap to 45%

After federal court stopped the motion, Congress voted on a 39% compromise

A company can own two TV stations in the same market only if one is not in the top four and there exist eight other independently owned stations

• A company can own two stations if one is in the top four and there exist six other independent stations

• A company can own three stations in a large market (NYC, LA, Chicago, etc.) is there exist 18 other independent stations


A company cannot own a newspaper and a TV/radio station in the same market

A company can own a TV station and a newspaper in any market with four or more TV stations


A company can own a TV station and up to seven radio stations if there exist 20 independent media voices

A company can own any media combination provided that there exist eight other independent media owners (four in smaller markets)


Mergers between the top four* TV networks – CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox) are banned



*Based on revenue. Chart largely cribbed from USAT. See also the FCC's description of rules under consideration in 2006.

The size of the industry

- and its big players (PI & TV)

Total print media, T.V. and radio broadcasting revenue (the type the FCC regulates):

  • $124 billion. Of that, what comes from:

    • TV (including broadcast television, television network companies and television station broadcasters):

      • $79.5 billion

    • Radio broadcasting:

      • $9.6 billion

    • Newspaper publishing

      • $24.8 billion

    • Consumer Magazine Publishing

      • $10.4 billion

Total cable and satellite revenue (cable and satellite are covered by media ownership regs):

  • $ 154.9 billion

How much the big media players own (PI & MIC)


Revenue from print, television and radio media

Percent of total print, television and radio revenue

Total media revenue (includes cable and “other")

Viacom (CBS)




Gannett Co.




NBC Universal (General Electric Co.)




Walt Disney Co. (ABC)




Tribune Co.




Time Warner




News Corp.




Advance Publications




Hearst Corp.




Clear Channel Communications




Obscenity, Indecency and Profanity

Obscene, indecent and profane material are all regulated by the FCC (on broadcast TV and radio, although Congress may vote to let the FCC regulate cable as well). Obscene material - i.e. porn - is banned by the FCC at all times. Indecent and profane material, more loosely defined as anything sexual or "excretory" that is offensive, is banned between 6am-10pm. (See the FCC for proper definitions.)

After football fans were offended by the sight of Janet Jackson's nipple on national TV, Congress voted to toughen the rules against indecency on air. (WH)

FCC fines for indecency

Current fine: $325,000 for one offense

Fines before-Janet: $32,500 for one offense

Fines Issued (PI)

  • $4.5 million issued in fines between 1990-2004 (75 fines), of those:

    • 96% fines issued toward radio broadcasting

    • 87% of the total ($3.9 million) was for just five shows

    • 4% fines issued towards television broadcasting

    • 2004 made up roughly 33% of the total

  • Average of 5 fines a year

  • Average of $300,000 a year in fines

  • Revenue of TV and radio in one year (not including cable and satellite tv): $89 billion (2003) MIC

(Since 2004, the FCC appears to have slowed up on handing out fines, although they are coming with bigger pricetags - WP)

Complaints filled with the FCC (CNS)

  • 2004 – 1.1 million*

  • 2003 – 202,000

  • 2002 – 14,000

  • 2001 – 345

  • 2000 – 111

* Includes the 540,000 complaints received following the Janet Jackson incident at the 2004 Super Bowl

Where the facts are from:

Updated July 8, 2008

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

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Media Ownership

After having read the publication 'Who Rules America',
and discovering the OVERWHELMING and DOMINANT control of our media by an ethnic group which comprises between 2.5 and 3% of this nation's entire population - and after watching the horrific consequences of this consolidation of media ownership - whereby a complicit mass media helped peddle the lies and pure horse manure that oozed out of the Bush White House and which lead to the neo-con job done on the American public - who were deliberately and with malice aforethought LIED TO about the secret Israeli inspired agenda to launch a premeditated, unprovoked, and illegal war of criminal aggression against Iraqi - a war with has seen the cold blooded mass murder of between 655,000 and 1.2 million innocent people in Iraq, plus the unnecessary deaths of thousands of our soldiers, plus the disgraceful maiming of thousands of others - both soldiers and civilians - it is time to take a serious look at this consolidation of media ownership in this nation. This concentation of media ownership by one tiny ethnic minority - a minority who has an agenda that is NOT only
criminal in nature, but which is also NOT in the best interests of the majority population of this nation - this is grounds for a complete house-cleaning. This media control MUST be dismantled, by whatever means necessary. And, strict quotas need to be imposed on ownerhip - with a sharp focus on racial, religious and ethnic representation.

Break it up NOW and start an investigation into this disportionate control of our media by people who are loyal to Israel, not to America.

a random Joe (not verified) | December 17, 2007 - 2:14pm
talker's picture


I have to admit, as the editor, I wasn't sure whether to let this comment fly or not. It comes close to breaking our rule of "not attacking the policy makers but attacking the policies" - and it's got a hint of racism to boot - but I'm letting it pass, for now at least, because I think it's an opinion that's not rare and worth voicing - if only to be debunked.

I am - in half - a member of the ethnic group in question and have heard this point of view before. One memorable time was with a cab driver who ferried me home late one night to the northern reaches of Manhattan. It was a long trip, but even so, our conversation lasted for a good fifteen minutes after we arrived at my apartment building and at the end my driver - an Muslim engineer from Egypt - was at least somewhat convinced the Israeli lobby didn't control our foreign policy. So I thought I'd try to convince this speaker as well.

Let's first say, Jews (if I'm guessing the ethnic group correctly) are, indeed, probably disproportionately represented in the media - but so are they disproportionately represented in just about every group that was advocating passionately against the war (the socialists, the civil libertarians, progressive groups). Jews, for whatever cultural reasons, just get around.

Now, put aside the dangers of looking to one minority group as being the root of a conspiracy (planned or unplanned) that goes against the welfare of a nation - historically, that often leads down a scary, nasty road.

But even if we were to glance down that road, I have just never bought the idea that the US is pro-Israel because Jews have a lot of influence - in the media or any where else. I don't think our leaders have ever sacrificed the strategic interests of the nation for a minority group - and I don't think they ever will. Instead of pro-Israel forces directing our leadership, I think our leadership uses Israel as a strategic partner - or base - to forward its geopolitical goals. Once Israel loses that strategic value, it won't matter how many Jews write editorials or produce slanted news segments - Israel's needs will be readily sacrificed for US national security.

What is Israel's strategic value? Okay, I'm treading into territory I'll confess I don't have strong evidence for - but one thing is for sure: Israel is our one rock-solid military partner in an area with disproportionate control over our world's greatest asset. Sure, maintaining that partnership is expensive (in terms of military aid to Israel and Egypt), but possibly it would be more expensive for us in the long run to give up that military foothold in the mideast.

Again, I'm not ready to submit an article to Foreign Affairs on my hunch that Israel is more of a pawn of US national interests than it is a puppeteer of US foreign policy - but given my understanding of how nations work, I think it's more plausible than not.

Finally, I'll add that while I agree the media was horrendously irresponsible in its reporting and editorializing before the war, they are guilty - at most - of riding on the coattails of a movement started by the administration. They certainly did little to stop the war - and probably abetted the administration in rolling the drum beat to war - but you can't accuse them of starting it.

talker | December 17, 2007 - 10:25pm