On WTO anniversary, the FCC returns to Seattle

by Geov Parrish, Eat the State

A history lesson: On Nov. 30, 1999, up to 70,000 people jammed downtown Seattle streets and shut down the opening day of meetings of the World Trade Organization ministerial. Organized labor, environmentalists, human rights advocates, peace activists, and many others gathered to protest, in essence, corporate control of democracy. While many Seattleites--thanks to media and especially TV coverage--remember mostly the actions of a few dozen vandals and the police, the protest reverberated around the world, inspiring millions.

Fast forward: On March 7, 2003, the media issue came back to Seattle, in the form of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing on a proposal to further deregulate ownership of television and radio broadcast licenses. The movement for media democracy was in its infancy, but the focus was similar to the anti-WTO protests: concern over democracy being trumped by rules written in the interest of a small handful of very large corporations--in this case, the ones that control much of the news and culture Americans consume.

Hundreds packed an auditorium on the University of Washington campus that day. All but a handful opposed deregulation. The three Republican members of the five-person commission did not attend, and, later, passed their deregulation package despite written testimony in opposition by millions of Americans. But an appeals court overturned the FCC ruling, and if it hadn't, Congress, bowing to public pressure, might well have done so instead.

So it is one of the richest ironies in recent memory that the FCC--or at least its two Democratic commissioners--will be coming back to town, to take testimony all over again on a thinly veiled attempt to reinstate the 2003 deregulation effort. And when, and where, will testimony be given? On Nov. 30, 2006, at the Seattle Public Library's main auditorium.

In other words, a federal hearing on further corporate control of democracy will take place on the seventh anniversary of the largest demonstrations against corporate control of democracy in modern history. And it will be happening in downtown Seattle, a couple of blocks from the epicenter of the anti-WTO protests.

Those FCC dudes sure have a sense of humor.

Much has changed since 2003. Nationally, the media democracy movement that barely existed five years ago is now a potent political force, having just effectively killed a bill gutting Internet neutrality that the telecommunications industry spent $200 million to get passed in the last session of Congress. For the first time in six years the Republican-controlled FCC faces real oversight from the legislative branch. Locally, the Joint Operating Agreement between our two daily newspapers is likely to be dissolved in about six months, with likely dire consequences for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Purchase of the Seattle Weekly by the country's largest weekly chain has now led to the dismantling of its news department. Among the companies owning the 30 or so major local radio and television stations, only Fisher Broadcasting (KOMO TV/radio, KVI and Star 101.5 radio) is locally owned.

I have a personal stake in this, of course. I was a columnist and editorial board member at the Weekly for eight years. Plus, a media company I started over 20 years ago is now owned by Clear Channel, which is also the nation's largest owner of radio stations, with over 1,200. (When Clear Channel started, the FCC allowed a maximum of 14.) Clear Channel, CBS, and Sandusky each own five radio stations in the Seattle area. Entercom owns eight.

I've seen first hand what consolidation does to the integrity of the media the public consumes.

Ultimately, though, my personal stake is the same as everyone else's: I want to know about decisions being made that might affect my life, and I don't trust Clear Channel or CBS or Belo or Entercom or any of the other companies controlling our TV and radio dials to tell me what I need to know. I don't like the idea of media monopolies on information. The FCC's proposed ruling--which would, for the first time, allow radio, TV, cable, and newspapers in the same cities to all be co-owned by one company--is a recipe for a media monopoly on local news, entertainment, and culture.

What will that do for news content? Ask the FCC. Its own experts concluded, in a study prepared during the 2003 deregulation drive, that non-local ownership reduces news and public affairs content. We know this because one of the authors recently leaked the study. The FCC itself suppressed this inconvenient finding.

Nov. 30 is our chance to tell the FCC what we think of the idea of media monopolies and spoon-fed crap. If you care about a free flow of information in our democracy, please turn out, and let them know what you think.

The FCC will be taking public testimony on its proposed ownership rulemaking on Thursday, Nov. 30, from 6-9 PM in the main auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., downtown. Highlights of the testimony at the Seattle hearing will be broadcast the following night, Dec. 1, from 6-7 PM on KBCS 91.3 FM.

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