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Though media mergers have been going on for decades, concern about corporate consolidation in some quarters has catapulted the issue to the forefront of public debate. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, has even taken up the issue.

Many factors have contributed to this shift in public awareness, including an Internet campaign from MoveOn.org, a liberal grassroots organization, in response to the June 2003 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling allowing increased TV and newspaper ownership in select markets. The result was a record 2 million letters of protest to the FCC. (The rules were struck down in court this June and sent back to the FCC for revision.)

But it's the media environment itself that is waking people up, many observers say. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during last January's SuperBowl on CBS made a national audience more aware of cross-ownership within the media. It was MTV, a sister network of CBS, that was responsible for producing the SuperBowl halftime show. (The two entities are owned by Viacom.) Intercooperation is a high priority at CBS, as Les Moonves, the newly installed Viacom copresident, told an audience of TV critics this July. "We're working hard to make sure all the pieces work hand in hand with each other, radio, billboards, bus sides, on-air promotion."

Large media holdings can provide a boon to consumers because of the resources available to various divisions of a parent company. But some argue that it can work against the public good .

After a train derailment last year released toxic gases into the air surrounding Minot, N.D., authorities could not use six of the local eight radio stations to warn residents because the stations broadcast only prerecorded shows. As a result of the Telecommunication Act of 1996, national media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications owns all six stations, critics say. In accord with corporate guidelines, cost cutting has led to stations airing prepackaged programming without any on-site supervision.

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