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Media Reformers Look Beyond Philadelphia

The appeals court decision that stymied the FCC's attempt to loosen ownership rules represents a 'golden opportunity' to create a more diverse and democratic media system.
 
 
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The June 24 federal appeals court decision against the FCC loosening of media-ownership rules marks a win for millions of Americans concerned about consolidation of media outlets, but the campaign against big media is far from over, advocates say.

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia told the FCC to reconsider cross-ownership rules that would have permitted more combinations of daily newspaper, radio and TV outlets in single markets. It also sent back for reconsideration rules that would let broadcasters own two or even three TV stations in a local market.

Although the ruling forces no media corporation to divest itself immediately of broadcast holdings, it does signal a red light for big media companies intent upon buying up more local radio and television stations.

"I know the industry is very unhappy with this decision and that they would want any appeal to be handled expeditiously by the FCC. They will likely do anything within their power to get this resolved in their favor," said James Bachtell, fellow at The Institute for Public Representation, which took a lead role in arguing the case against FCC deregulation in front of the Third Circuit.

"There is always the possibility that this could be taken to the Supreme Court," Bachtell added.

Big media companies that would see their expansion efforts blocked did not immediately issue statements following Thursday's ruling. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the powerful lobbyist that acts on behalf of the radio and television industry, said it needed time to study the decision.

Not surprisingly, FCC Chairman Michael Powell was unhappy with the courts 217-page ruling. "This is the second time a court has put aside exhaustive efforts by the expert agency to set numerical limits," Powell said in a statement on Thursday.

In 2001 the D.C. Court of Appeals remanded the agency's previous ownership rules, prompting the crafting of the 2003 ownership language. The Philadelphia decision, thus, left the FCC with another unenforceable set of rules.

"[The] decision sets near impossible standards for justifying bright line ownership standards," Powell added. "We will thoroughly study this voluminous opinion and consider carefully our next steps."

Taking it to Pennsylvania Avenue

Clearly, media companies and their well-funded lobbyists and lawyers in Washington aren't going to roll over. The struggle now, according to media reformers, is to get government – at the executive and legislative level – to commit further to media ownership rules that ensure diversity, local control and better service of the public interest by big media.

Within hours of the decision, the Consumers Union launched a nationwide campaign to ensure that the Bush Administration follows through on the ruling by taking an electoral position and encouraging legislation that "requires diversity and competition in the nation's media."

"Now we have to ensure that the Bush Administration shifts course and attempts to ensure that the most important sources of news and information cannot be controlled by a handful of giant companies," Gene Kimmelman, the Union's public policy director said.

The Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, is asking its more than one million members to send letters to the FCC and White House that call on them to "set the course for open and independent media for decades to come."

President Bush, whose re-election campaign receives money from such media giants as News Corp, General Electric and Clear Channel Communications, has released no election-year position on media ownership other than to reiterate his support for the industry-friendly stance taken during the his first term by Chairman Powell, who was elevated from commissioner to chairman by Bush.

The Consumer's Union hopes to change the White House view. "With the help of the millions of Americans concerned about the corporatization of their local media," Kimmelman said, "we will continue to push the Administration to do what the people want, and not what the big media giants want, when it comes to an issue so important to our democratic values."

Going Local

Free Press, a media reform group based in western Massachusetts, has been active on a grassroots level, organizing citizens across the country to call on the FCC to convene official "localism hearings" where citizens have the chance to speak to regulators about consolidation's impact in their region. Free Press is mobilizing Americans to send 500,000 letters to Chairman Powell demanding he attend a hearing in every state before the agency redrafts its ownership rules.

"As important as Thursday's ruling was, it just protected the status quo of media ownership," Josh Silver, managing director of Free Press said. "Our mission now is to present a vision for a much more diverse, independent and local media system than the one we have today. Our goal is to promote visionary media policies that go beyond the current range of debate in Washington."

On the Hill and Over the Airwaves

On another front, the Public Interest, Public Airwaves (PIPA) Coalition – a powerful alliance of public policy, political grassroots and media reform groups – is lobbying members of Congress and the FCC to put in place clear set of guidelines to ensure that the nation's commercial broadcasters do more to serve the public interest.

Since April, when the Coalition first announced its campaign, Americans have sent more than 150,000 letters to the FCC and members of Congress supporting the call for government to ensure that broadcasters provide more coverage of elections and civic affairs and air more programs by independent producers.

PIPA's multi-pronged effort – at the grassroots, congressional and industry levels – has yielded a favorable hearing with many members of Congress as well as from commissioners within the FCC.

Former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who was instrumental in the launch of the PIPA Coalition, said that the Philadelphia decision gives the FCC "a golden opportunity to put into place rules that promote a more diverse and local media, and a media that looks like America."

The Philadelphia court decision has kicked the ownership ruling back to the FCC with the understanding that it will reconsider a range of public concerns about media ownership.

While big media still exerts considerable influence over Washington policymaking, this is a chance for media reformers to make the review process more open to those beyond the beltway so that ordinary citizens can take a more active role in the shaping of American media.

Timothy Karr is executive director of MediaChannel and Director of Media For Democracy, MediaChannel's 2004 citizens' initiative to monitor media coverage of the presidential elections.