A Call To Protect Media Diversity

Editor's Note: The Federal Communications Commission, led by Michael Powell, plans to introduce several important rules that will dramatically undermine diversity in both media content and ownership. These new rules are currently in the Comment/Reply period, which means that concerned citizens still have time to either contact their member of Congress or file their concerns with the FCC. The Center for Digital Democracy's Executive Director Jeff Chester outlines the issues at stake and lists the important questions that need to be raised in comments to the FCC.

The FCC has initiated a proceeding that will lead to further dramatic changes in our media system. It's clear the FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the Bush-controlled Federal Communications Commission plan to end or weaken federal policies that have served as an important "check and balance" system for much of our media.

These changes will have an impact in every community in the US, where there will soon be even fewer owners of TV and radio stations, newspapers, and cable systems. Nationally, a smaller number of conglomerates will control most of the major media outlets. Given the Powell FCC's recent policy decisions on the Internet, the few remaining dominant owners of "old" media will have their power extended to the new online medium as well. In short, this is a huge giveaway of public resources and political power to a tiny few.

The commission launched its "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (NPRM) on September 12, 2002, with the clear intention of eliminating or drastically weakening several key rules that were designed to protect the public's First Amendment rights to a diverse media marketplace of ideas. This proceeding is likely to craft a new "public interest" framework for communications in the U.S. Federal rules designed to enhance "diversity, competition, and localism" will be axed, likely replaced by a system that basically permits the biggest media companies to "serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity" by focusing on their corporate bottom lines.

In a strange and twisted "déjà vu," the FCC's Notice points to policy findings made by the Reagan-era "marketplace-is-supreme" FCC as the foundation for its many current assumptions. Mark Fowler, Reagan's first FCC chairman, is clearly the spiritual father of Michael Powell. Fowler infamously said that public interest rules for television were unnecessary since TV was just another appliance, "a toaster with pictures."

Like Fowler, Michael Powell sees a media world in which public policies are unnecessary. For Powell, we live in a new golden age of media, in which the emergence of Fox News and other new cable channels preclude the need for meaningful federal policy designed to ensure the public is served as citizens. Indeed, its striking that the NPRM mentions "citizens" only once, and doesn't discuss "civic engagement" at all. Consumers, however, are mentioned more than three-dozen times, revealing the commission's assumption that the issue at hand is whether "viewers" have several choices for TV movies and sit-coms.

Powell alone cannot be blamed for this proceeding, however. It has also been spurred by the media industry lobby, which includes some of the most powerful companies in the US. GE/NBC, AOL Time Warner, Comcast, News Corp/Fox, and the Tribune Company are among those striving to dismantle what remains of already weakened limits on concentration of ownership. These companies have engaged in a tripartite strategy in an effort to remove any federal limits on their size and power. They have often gone either first to the FCC or the Congress to achieve their agenda. Failing success in one, they have gone to the other. And failing legislative or regulatory intervention, they have gone to court.

Over and over again these media companies have claimed that their corporate First Amendment rights are being violated by rules designed to protect the public's First Amendment rights. The media lobby has been spectacularly successful in its legal advocacy, especially with the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Given an FCC (under Powell and his democratic predecessor) that is either hostile or ambivalent to the public interest rules, it is no surprise that the court has recently declared some of the rules illegal, and ordered the FCC to review others.

In fact, the entire FCC review currently underway is part of the perverse legacy of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a law that was principally dictated by industry lobbyists. In what only can be called a doomsday-like public-interest death device straight out of the movie "Dr. Strangelove," section 202 (h) of the 96 Act requires the Commission to "review its rules adopted pursuant to this section and all of its ownership rules biennially as part of its regulatory reform review under section 11 of the Communications Act of 1934 and shall determine whether any of such rules are necessary in the public interest as the result of competition. The Commission shall repeal or modify any regulation it determines to be no longer in the public interest." In other words, the FCC must now document every two years why the ownership rules are necessary, using the standard of "competition" as its framework.

As the NPRM makes clear, Powell is already convinced that there is plenty of competition in the media marketplace today. For example, the NPRM suggests that the availability of new cable channels and web sites is evidence that an abundance of news sources exists, with the implication that the public no longer has to worry about new rules that will permit even fewer owners of broadcast TV networks or cable systems.

The rules currently under review include the following:

Broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule:

This policy has prohibited the two most important sources of information in a community-the daily newspaper and a broadcast TV station-from being owned by the same company.

Local TV multiple ownership rule and the radio/TV cross-ownership rule:

These rules limit somewhat the number of stations that any one entity can own in a single community.

National TV ownership rule:

This policy limits the number of TV stations a single company can own. The current limit prohibits a company from controlling stations that collectively reach 35 percent of all TV households.

Dual Network Rule:

This policy prevents one of the four major networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox - from buying another network.

In addition to its profoundly undemocratic, anhistorical approach, what's astounding is that the Michael Powell is proceeding with media industry business as usual, despite the scandals of Worldcom, Adelphia, and the dot-com industry that have wreaked havoc on the economy. It's clear that the claims of the media industry should no longer be taken at face value, let alone believed. A serious independent investigation is required before any public safeguards are changed. Yet with his mind made up, Powell's FCC is uninterested in developing a meaningful record of public discussion. That much is evident from the language of the NPRM itself, and from the research design of the twelve commission studies on media ownership that have been released.

There is still time for the public to respond, however, both by writing letters to Congress urging opposition to further deregulation and support for a meaningful public debate, and by filing with the FCC during the Comment and Reply period. We urge you to read or review the NPRM itself (it's a modern political fairy tale, given its uncritical perspectives on ownership and diversity). But whether you respond to all the NPRM questions or not, you should make your voice heard.

To help, here are ten questions that members of the public might answer in filing their comments with the FCC:

1. How should the FCC measure viewpoint diversity? (The Commission suggests that it should simply be evaluated in a context of commercial competition.)

2. In what ways do locally owned and controlled media outlets such as TV stations and newspapers serve their communities more effectively than chain or network-owned properties?

3. The FCC suggests that broadcast TV isn't as important a source of information as it once was, given the "proliferation of outlets." Do you believe this to be the case?

4. The Commission also suggests that ownership limits may no longer be necessary to promote diversity of expression in the media. Do larger media companies indeed strengthen diverse reporting and analysis?

5. How has consolidation affected the quality of local, national, and international reporting? Has media concentration diminished the ability of the news media to engage in a critical "watchdog" role over private and public interests?

6. Has the so-called explosion in outlets, as Michael Powell would have it, brought about an increase in media owned or controlled by persons of color and women?

7. Has cable television really contributed to program diversity, with real alternatives of genre and scope?

8. Do commonly owned media, as the FCC suggests, have "stronger incentives to provide diverse formats, programs, and content"?

9. Is there truly an "ever-increasing number of alternative providers of delivered video programming"?

10. In determining diversity, should the commission, as it suggests, count every web site and cable channel available? Or should it be more focused on the most powerful and dominant outlets?

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