FCC: Public Be Damned
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Cheered on by the Bush Administration and powerful media conglomerates, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell is pushing ahead with a June 2 vote to gut longstanding rules designed to prevent the growth of media monopolies. If successful, Powell's push could, in the words of dissident commissioner Michael Copps, "dramatically [alter] our nation's media landscape without the kind of debate and analysis that these issues clearly merit." Copps and the other Democratic commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, have asked for a thirty-day delay in the vote, but Powell has the upper hand; he and two other Republican commissioners form a majority on the five-member FCC. The chairman will not win without a fight, however, as his decision to force a vote on rule changes that have not been broadly debated or analyzed has provoked a fierce response from the widest coalition of critics ever to weigh in on an FCC rule-making decision.
Powell's contempt for public opinion, evidenced by his scheduling of only one official hearing on the proposed rule changes, is so great that he refused invitations to nine semiofficial hearings at which other commissioners were present. The hearings drew thousands of citizens and close to universal condemnation of the rule changes. Likewise, an examination of roughly half the 18,000 public statements filed electronically with the FCC show that 97 percent of them oppose permitting more media concentration. Even media moguls Barry Diller and Ted Turner have raised objections, with Turner complaining, "There's really five companies that control 90 percent of what we read, see and hear. It's not healthy."
Outraged by Powell's antidemocratic approach, Common Cause has launched a national petition drive demanding a delay in the vote, while web activists at MoveOn.org are highlighting the issue in bulletins and calling on the "media corps" they organized to monitor media bias during the Iraq war to turn its energies toward stopping the FCC vote. Consumers Union and Free Press, a national media-reform network, have launched a letter-writing campaign to Congress and the FCC from www.mediareform.net. Local governments are also getting involved; the Chicago City Council urged rejection of the proposed changes in a resolution that declared: "Unchecked media consolidation benefits a small number of corporate interests at the expense of the public interest."
Noting that the consolidation of radio ownership that followed passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act has proven disastrous for pop music, journalism and local communities, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel, Don Henley, Patti Smith, Pearl Jam and other musicians signed a letter telling Powell they were "extremely concerned as American citizens that increased concentration of media ownership will have a negative impact on access to diverse viewpoints and will impede the functioning of our democracy." Nearly 300 academics signed a letter to the FCC protesting Powell's refusal to allow an evaluation of the "research" he has talked of using to justify relaxing the media ownership rules. The national associations of Hispanic and black journalists called on the FCC to delay action until more study of threats to diversity could be completed. Leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Consumer Federation of America and many other groups argued that Powell had not allowed enough time to analyze the potential damage to democracy.
On Capitol Hill, nearly 100 House Democrats signed a letter by Representatives Bernie Sanders, Maurice Hinchey and Sherrod Brown calling on Powell to delay the June 2 vote on the rules, open the process to public comment and demonstrate how his proposed changes in ownership limits will serve the public interest by promoting diversity, competition and localism. Fifteen senators, led by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, declared in a letter to the FCC: "We believe it is virtually impossible to serve the public interest in this extremely important and highly complex proceeding without letting the public know about and comment on the changes you intend to make to these critical rules."
The stirrings in Congress prodded the Bush Administration and its allies. Commerce Secretary Don Evans urged Powell to proceed with the June 2 vote regardless of the opposition, and business-friendly members of the House echoed that call. But the political climate surrounding media ownership has become so electric that nothing should be taken for granted. Twelve of the fifteen senators who signed the Snowe letter to Powell are members of the Commerce Committee, and committee chair John McCain -- though he did not sign the letter -- has overseen three recent hearings at which sharp criticisms of FCC moves promoting media consolidation were raised both by Democratic and Republican senators. McCain says he will call the FCC commissioners to a hearing after June 2, and he may yet join efforts to have Congress renew at least some of the rules. In addition, Senate Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens and David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, are making noises about having Congress step in to defend controls against monopoly. Even if Powell prevails on June 2, the tempest will continue to grow. He may ultimately be remembered not for loosening the rules but for pushing so hard he woke America up, forcing public-interest concerns back into the debate over media ownership.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade.
Robert W. McChesney, who teaches at the University of Illinois, is the author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy" (New Press) and, with John Nichols, of "It's the Media, Stupid" (Seven Stories).