Grassroots gears up as FCC revisits ownership rules

by Catherine Komp, New Standard

Having forced government media regulators to rethink the relaxation of owner-concentration rules pushed through in 2003, reformers are wasting no time heading off another FCC attempt to facilitate media consolidation.
The fight to protect locally owned and diverse media outlets is gearing up again after the Federal Communications Commission announced it would be opening up a public comment period on newly proposed media-ownership rules.

But opponents of media consolidation, including two FCC commissioners, are concerned that the proceedings will be inadequate and public input will be ignored, as was the case during the last review of ownership rules in 2003.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has expressed strong opposition to the rulemaking process, said this would be the FCC’s most important public-policy decision of the year.

“This debate will have far-reaching implications for the credibility of information Americans get from the media – for the vitality of the civic dialogue that determines the direction of our democracy – and for whether TV and radio offer entertainment that is creative, uplifting and local, or degrading, banal and homogenized,” wrote Copps in his partially dissenting response to the rule-making proceedings.

So far, the five-member, presidentially appointed commission has released few details on its rulemaking process. It simply listed the rules it will potentially be seeking to change, including local television and radio ownership limits, the ban on cross-ownership of newspaper and broadcast outlets, the limit on cross-ownership of radio and television stations, and the dual network ban, which prohibits ownership of more than one of the big four television networks.

The FCC has not yet opened the 120-day public-comment period. FCC spokesperson Rebecca Fisher said they had “no timeline” on when that would happen.

Another dissenting Commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, warned that the structure of the upcoming process fails to solicit public comment on specific proposals before they are finalized, fails to require completion of public hearings before the rules are changed, and fails to seek public comment on how all of the media-ownership rules work together.

“This Notice is thin gruel to those hoping for a meaty discussion of media-ownership issues,” Adestein said in written comments about the process.

The debate over those rules has been contentious, as big corporations look to amass more media outlets in concentrated markets, and communities decry of the loss of locally owned radio stations. After broadcast-ownership limits were relaxed in 1996, Clear Channel went from owning a few dozen stations to more than 1,200 just four years later . By 2004, according to Columbia University’s annual State of the News Media report, the top ten largest companies owned 30 percent of all television stations reaching 85 percent of TV households.

In 2003, the FCC proposed to further loosen media-ownership rules, permitting a single corporation to own up to three televisions stations, eight radio stations and a daily newspaper – even the only daily newspaper – in a single market.

More than 2 million people submitted comments and testified at hearings in opposition to the proposals. It was the largest public response in the FCC’s history. Despite this outpouring of public rejection of changes to already-weak existing media diversity protections, the Republican majority on the FCC – then headed by Michael Powell – voted in favor of the sweeping overhaul.

Media-reform groups like Free Press are concerned that the FCC majority will try to push through the same controversial ownership rules proposed three years ago, despite a court ruling that the changes were not “sufficiently justified.” That case – brought by the grassroots media organization Prometheus Radio Project – stopped those rules from going into effect. In its June 2004 ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals required the FCC to prove that the rule changes were in the public interest.

The new rulemaking process comes in response to that ruling and to a quadrennial review of all ownership rules, as mandated by Congress . In its most recent announcement, the FCC has promised to conduct studies on the impact of consolidation on local media content. The commission’s list of study areas is broad, including a look at how people consume news, minority participation in media, and independent programming. However, according to FCC spokesperson Fisher, none of these studies has yet been launched.

Pete Tridish, founder of Prometheus Radio Project, says these studies are key and would like to see the FCC take a serious look at how cross-ownership influences news and information. By looking at issues of media ownership through an economic lens, as Tridish said the commission has a record of, it is missing important factors about the role of media in a functioning democracy.

As media conglomerates have swooped up local newspapers, radio stations and television outlets, media-diversity groups say the quality of information often suffers. For instance, media giants have scaled back newsrooms, leading to less local news and investigative reporting, traded for more sensationalism and commercialism.

“When one company, one owner swallows up all the local media, it can be very difficult to get a truly fair picture of what’s happening in your community or even get, in many cases, local coverage of what’s happening in your community,” said Craig Aaron, spokesperson for media-focused public-interest group Free Press

“These companies, what they care the most about of course and the reason they want to consolidate is the bottom line,” he told The NewStandard. “They want to make more money.”

Since it is unknown when the commissioners will begin hearing opinions on the matter of media consolidation, reform groups aren’t waiting for the FCC to make its move. Free Press has been organizing its own hearings around the country so that communities can voice their opinions on consolidation and diversity.

Though Free Press has invited all commissioners to participate in the seven hearings held thus far, Aaron said only Copps and Adelstein have been attending. The town-hall-style gatherings have been held in Ashville, North Carolina; Iowa City, Iowa; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Portland, Oregon.

“We’ve found them to be pretty remarkable events; 400, 500 people showing up on a rainy Wednesday night just to talk about the media,” said Aaron. “And 95 percent of the people who come to these events tell the commissioners, ‘Don’t let big media get bigger.’”

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