A lefty/regulatory gap in talking to the FCC

by Geov Parrish, Horsesass.org

OK, so apologies for the fact that my first post here is both kind of boring and somewhat contrarian. I’ll try not to let the former happen again.

I was also at the FCC hearing last night, and beyond Goldy’s (and Andrew’s) posts below, and Frank the Dog-Shooter’s self-aggrandizing introductory remarks, I came away with another take.

I remember having come out of the March 2003 FCC hearing on ownership deregulation, held at UW’s HUB Ballroom, feeling euphoric. A huge crowd showed up to give the FCC an earful on its destructive rulemaking proposal to allow greater deregulation of media ownership, specifically, crossownership in the same city of radio/TV stations and newspaper and cable companies.

After an unexpected sea of public comment and Congressional criticism, the inevitable decision by the Commission’s Republican majority was overturned in federal appeals court. And, so, last night, the FCC was back in town, for a virtually identical hearing on a virtually identical rulemaking proposal. So either I’ve changed a lot politically in three years (which I doubt), or the expectations that now come with a new and remarkably powerful media democracy movement are vastly higher, which I think is more the case. Because even as 400 plus people braved a frigid, slushy night to turn out and give the FCC another earful, I came away this time with a slightly sour taste.

Despite the turnout, and the overwhelming opposition to media deregulation by the crowd, progressives reading themselves into the public record did themselves few favors last night. The two most compelling speakers on the night, IMO, were John Carlson (KVI talk show host and the night’s sole self-identified Republican), who made the conservative case for regulating media ownership, and UW President Mark Emmert, who made an educator’s pitch for media diversity as necessary for fostering critical thinking skills in a democracy. In a sea of progressives, the standout critics were a conservative talk show host and (essentially) the CEO of one of the region’s biggest employers.

Granted, Carlson and Emmert are both polished public speakers, and both are familiar with how to couch arguments that make sense to lawmakers and regulators. But that’s just the point: with few exceptions, the several dozen mostly left-leaning public speakers that followed in testimony weren’t. Many were lost in a sea of abstract theory; a number made the repetitive case that concentrated media ownership is bad – completely true, but also tangential and in important ways irrelevant to the proceeding, since that question was settled (for the FCC’s purposes) by Congress with the abysmal Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Remarkably few progressives specifically addressed the actual issue at hand: whether having different big corporations owning your newspapers and your radio/TV outlets is better than having the same corporate monolith owning both. Only one speaker addressed that issue head-on in those terms, and several compelling progressive arguments against cross-ownership went entirely unmentioned. (For example, addressing the pro-business argument that Internet diversity makes distinctions between regulated broadcast stations and unregulated newspapers irrelevant — an argument Carlson skewered — by noting either that many Americans still don’t have home Internet access, let alone broadband, or that while diverse information is widely available on the Internet, citizens must seek it out — through search engines, links, or URLs — whereas turning a dial, flipping through a remote, or dropping quarters in a box gets you radio, TV, and newspapers, a far more general mass audience.) While these arguments and others went asking, two speakers somehow felt that it would be helpful to do satirical presentations in a federal hearing, as though it were yet another Seattle School Board hearing. Another plugged her socialist newspaper (sigh…) as running the sorts of stories corporate media ought to but won’t.

At least nobody sang.

In other words, it was a few former professional journalists and current media management types (a working journalist would never testify at such a hearing), plus a fairly representative cross-section of our region’s progressive Left, flakes included. The two FCC Commissioners who came to Seattle and who are holding these hearings around the country must have the patience of saints.

The flakes worry me less than the relative absence of compelling and on-point testimony from progressives – and I say this as someone who founded a broadcast trade company whose bread and butter was covering FCC rulemaking proposals. (The company is now owned by Clear Channel. Big sigh.) Few speakers were polished. Few dressed nicely — a detail that doesn’t matter much in a Seattle public hearing, but very much does in D.C.

Few seemed to understand what sorts of testimony might move the FCC, particularly (as Carlson grasped) how to frame issues in a way that would speak to at least one of the three Republican commissioners not present. (After all, the point is to win, not just to ratify the views of the two Democratic commissioners on hand.) Failing debate tactics, few even spoke from the heart as to what media diversity meant to them. And on a related note, excepting Jan Strout of NOW, the only speakers who addressed how lack of diverse ownership affects minority ownership were non-whites.

The FCC hearing was a microcosm of a larger problem. Progressives have been out of power so routinely that when we do have power, far too often we have no idea how to use it. The media democracy movement now has power; anyone doubting it should consider that despite a $200 million lobbying campaign by big telecommunications firms, that movement stopped Congress this session from ending net neutrality. That’s power. But in this case, when local grass roots progressives had the opportunity to publicly put their views on federal record, by and large they whiffed.

Something to ponder now that, at both the state legislative and congressional levels, progressives now have unprecedented power.

article originally published at http://www.horsesass.org/wp-trackback.php?p=2274.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey