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FCC Rejects Public Interest

While the Republican-led commission voted as expected, hope for media reform is not yet dead. A popular grassroots campaign can still force Congress to undo the damage.
 
 
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Monday's 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to remove barriers to corporate consolidation of control over the media capped a process that, even by the standards of George W. Bush's Washington, bent the rules to serve the special interests.

But the special interests and their allies in the FCC majority may finally have bent those rules to the breaking point. Indeed, even as he objected to Monday's decision, dissenting Commissioner Michael Copps said, "The obscurity of this issue that many have relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood this issue, is gone forever."

There is no question that, for the first time in recent American history, media has become a political issue. And, perhaps as significantly, the scandalous way in which the FCC does business has been exposed. "If ever we needed an example of what is wrong with the way in which the FCC handles issues of media ownership, the fight over these rule changes provides it," says US Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the leading critic of media consolidation in Congress. "We have seen that, at the FCC, the regulators do not regulate the industry. It's the opposite: The industry regulates the regulators. And that has to change."

In addition to provoking passionate opposition from civil rights, consumer, labor, religious and community groups across the country, this spring's debate over the six sweeping changes in media ownership regulations drew more scrutiny of the FCC than had ever before been seen. And that attention has revealed an agency where corporations that are supposed to be regulated enjoy extraordinary access to the regulators and the favorable treatment that extends from that access.

The FCC majority went to such extremes in assuring a result that would satisfy the demands of the nation's most powerful media corporations that the two dissenting commissioners took the rare step of criticizing the majority for producing what Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein referred to as an "outcome-driven political document."

"When this full document is finally made public, I expect it will be torn apart by media experts, academics, consumer groups, activists, and most of all, the American people," explained Adelstein. "They will find it riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, false assumptions and outcome-driven thinking."

In a city where political discourse is still tempered at most turns by cautious and false politeness, Adelstein was refreshingly blunt Monday as he stated the reasons for his dissent. While noting the overwhelming opposition to the rule changes expressed by consumer, labor, religious, civil rights, journalism and academic groups, the commissioner focused in particular on the concerns stated by the more than 750,000 citizens who personally contacted the FCC to signal their fears about media consolidation and monopoly. Speaking of the American people, Adelstein said, "Today's decision overrides their better judgment. It instead relies on the reasoning of a handful of powerful media companies who have a vested financial interest. Those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves won out over the public."

How did "those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves" win out?

In the weeks before Monday's vote, the Center for Public Integrity detailed the cozy relationship between the FCC majority, key staffers and the industries they are supposed to police.

Last month, the Center revealed that FCC commissioners and staffers have taken more than 2,500 junkets -- at a cost of almost $2.8 million -- that were paid for by the interests they are supposed to police. And it came as no surprise to anyone that FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the primary proponent of the six rule changes, was among the chief recipients of the first-class flights, luxury hotel suites and other favors that the media giants used to influence the decision-making process. Assessing the study's findings, Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis said, "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."

The idea grew even more laughable on the eve of Monday's vote, as the same Washington-based public interest research center revealed that, over the past eight months, owners and lobbyists for the country's largest broadcasting conglomerates met behind closed doors with FCC officials 71 times to discuss the rule changes that would allow big media to get dramatically bigger.

While the media conglomerates that favor the relaxing of ownership rules continue to claim that they are in competition with one another, the Center for Public Integrity study revealed that, "At some of the sessions (with commissioners and FCC staffers) executives from the nation's top broadcasters, such as News Corp./Fox, General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC, teamed together to lobby for the proposed changes."

In a measure of how seriously the broadcast conglomerates took the proposed rule changes -- which were designed to make it dramatically easier for a single company to control most of the media in one city, while also permitting national networks to buy up more local stations -- the most powerful men in global media trekked to the FCC building for the closed door meetings. "Media moguls Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns Fox, and Mel Karmazin of Viacom, which owns CBS, virtually dashed from one FCC office to another for a series of private meetings with commissioners and top staff in late January and early February, as the agency was crafting the controversial proposals," explained the Center's Bob Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.

Karmazin and other Viacom officials and lobbyists met 45 times with the FCC commissioners and staffers, while News Corp. officials joined in 25 such closed-door meetings. Representatives of broadcast powerhouses such as ABC, NBC, Disney and Clear Channel, and newspaper chains such as Gannett, Cox and Hearst gathered separately and together for the 71 private meetings with the FCC.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these closed-to-the-public sessions were held with FCC commissioners and staffers who were viewed as being friendly to the corporations, and supportive of the rule changes that have been proposed. FCC Chairman Powell and his legal advisor Susan Eid, met privately with both News Corp.'s Murdoch and Viacom's Karmazin. Powell, his chief of staff Marsha MacBride, and Eid also met with NBC executives; while Powell and MacBride huddled with Gannett's representatives.

In all, Powell, Eid, MacBride and Ken Ferree, the FCC Media Bureau Chief who is considered to be the prime architect of the ownership rule changes, participated in at least 35 closed-door sessions with executives of major media conglomerates and their minions.

Powell and the two other Republican commissioners, who also met frequently with industry representatives, on Monday formed the 3-2 majority to endorse the ownership rule changes pushed by big media.

At the same time that Powell was meeting privately with the corporate chieftains, he was avoiding public hearings organized by Copps and Adelstein, the two Democratic FCC commissioners who tried unsuccessfully to open up decision-making process about rule changes that Copps says "will recast our entire media landscape for years to come."

"Good, sustainable rules are the result of an open administrative process and a serious attempt to gather all the relevant facts," Copps said Monday. "Bad rules and legal vulnerability result from an opaque regulatory process and inadequate data. Unfortunately, today's rules fall into the latter camp."

In his dissent, Copps focused on the failure of the Commission's majority to adequately consider public opinion -- or the public interest.

"I am concerned that this proceeding has been run as a classic inside-the- Beltway process with too little outreach from the Commission and too little opportunity for public participation in this far-reaching review of critical media concentration protections," said Copps. "This is the way the Commission usually does business, we are told. Well, I submit this is too important to be treated on a business-as-usual basis."

The triumph of the inside-the-Beltway approach was evident in the refusal of FCC Chairman Powell to schedule a sufficient number of public hearings, or to attend hearings arranged by others. "Proceeding on an assumption that all expertise does not reside within the Beltway, I sought to have the Commission hold a series of forums and roundtables around the country that would include significant input from both traditional and non-traditional stakeholders," recalled Copps. "After an initial flat denial we were given only one official hearing, and it was less than 100 miles outside the Beltway in Richmond, Virginia."

After the February session in Richmond, Powell refused at least twelve invitations to participate in semiofficial hearings at which Copps and Adelstein were present. Powell, who jetted across this country this spring to stay in the luxury suites provided by the corporations that were lobbying for the rule changes, said he was too busy to make it to those public sessions.

Powell would not go to the public, and he and his aides also declined to afford equal access to groups advocating the public interest. According to Williams, "The 71 meetings FCC officials have held with top broadcasters were in stark contrast to the number of private sessions with Consumers Union and the Media Access Project, the two major consumer groups working on the issue. Those two groups have had only five such sessions with commissioners and other agency officials since the proposals first surfaced eight months ago."

In his dissent, Copps recounted how he was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to gather more public comment, encourage adequate research on the potential impact of the rule changes and, ultimately, to delay Powell's rush to close the debate with Monday's vote.

"When a draft proposal, not including the proposed text of the new rules themselves, was circulated to Commissioners a mere three weeks before today's vote, we formally requested that the Commission postpone today's meeting to provide additional time to study more thoroughly the impact of the proposals and their interplay, and to see if common ground could be found," Copps complained. "Under long-standing Commission practices, such requests from Commissioners have generally been honored. That request was also denied."

There is no question that the denial of public input and the public interest are disappointing, even scandalous. But in disappointment and anger at scandalous behavior, there can be strength. Because Congress has the power to intervene to restore media ownership rules gutted Monday by the FCC -- and with members as divergent in their views as North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan and Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott indicating that they want to act on the issue -- an angry public might yet be heard.

As Copps said in his statement of dissent Monday, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant.American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."

Just as Congress has the power to reverse the worst of the FCC's decisions, so Congress has the power to police the policeman. The complaints of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, the revelations from the Center for Public Integrity and the public outcry over Monday's decision make the case for a dramatic change in how the FCC does business. Indeed, says Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders, "We now have two outrageous situations that need to be addressed by Congress: the new media ownership rules and the way in which those rules were made. The incestuous relationships between regulators and the industries they are supposed to regulate have been exposed. The situation is so outrageous that I think the American people are going to tell Congress: This has to be addressed."