Adelstein on net neutrality, the future of media and more

[Truthdig interview]

James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris here sitting down with Josh Scheer, and on the phone we have one of five FCC commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein, on the phone. How are you doing today, Jonathan?

Jonathan Adelstein: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

Harris Our pleasure. There’s a lot going on with regard to FCC and media deregulation and there’s this talk of the XM-Sirius satellite companies merging. There’s a slumping, as I see, in traditional media form, whether it be television or radio. And there’s always continual questions about media ownership. I want to know, what do you see as the most pressing issue for the FCC today?

Adelstein: Well, the most pressing issue is making sure that people have information from a wide diversity of sources, and that requires, I think, dispersed ownership of some of the media properties so that some of the minorities, for example, can own outlets. Women . . . Right now minorities are 30 percent of the population but only 3 percent of the TV broadcast licenses. Women, as we all know, are over half the population but only 5 percent of licenses. So no wonder people complain that the portrayal of women and minorities in the media tends to be either stereotyped or ignored and underrepresented completely. That’s just one of the issues. But think about the importance of getting a real debate going, and not only in the traditional media but on the Internet as well. And when it comes to the Internet, I think the issue there is keeping the Internet freedom alive and keeping the openness that has been the long hallmark of the Internet, what some people call “Net neutrality.”

Harris: Now, how do you do that? Obviously, these companies like Fox, the big players, CNN, whether it be the networks: CBS, NBC.... They are owned right now. How do you open up the gateway and allow minorities—whether it be women, whether it be Latinos, whether it be blacks—how do you allow them ownership possibilities?

Adelstein: Well, the first step is making sure we don’t have further media consolidation until we deal with that issue. Right now a lot of the big media companies are asking to allow us to loosen the rules so they can get even bigger, they can buy more outlets. Now, if you allow these large, deep-pocketed companies to buy out even more small, local outlets, the price just goes up and they get even further out of the reach of minorities and women. So, step No. 1: Do no harm. And, No. 2, we need to make better efforts to make sure that the information is out there. In the last media ownership review in 2003, then-Chairman [Michael K.] Powell eliminated the only rule that was designed to help minorities find out about stations that were going up for sale. We were actually condemned by the Third Circuit federal court about doing that, in that we weren’t upholding the requirements to avoid discrimination. I mean, it’s shocking that we would be—in this millennium—chastised for not doing all we can to prevent discrimination. So there’s a whole bunch of ideas that a diversity committee has come up with. We’ve got to be more creative in ways of getting these in the hands of folks, but we’ve got to start by not allowing further media consolidation until we deal with it.

Josh Scheer: How much media consolidation has taken place? I don’t think many people know this. It’s hard to find these kind of stories. What would you say? How much is owned by a small group of people?

Adelstein: Well, the top five companies in the country—some studies show—control as much as 75 percent of what people see and hear in the broadcast media. The giant conglomerates that own so many of the outlets and so much of the material. And they, of course, also have their own websites that people flock to that are the largest, most powerful Internet portals. So there’s a very small group. Even though there’re 300 channels on, the vast bulk of them, especially the ones that are the most popular, are controlled by the handful of media giants that already have a big voice in this country. And our thought is, “Let’s make sure that others can have a voice as well.” The Internet makes that possible, but the fact is that people still tend to look at broadcasts and newspapers as their primary source of news and information and the real driving force that controls the discourse in most communities across the country.

Scheer: Now how do we change people’s opinions? Because, I think I suffer from that a little bit, too. I like the and I read it, but I still look to CBS or I still look to CNN or a book, to kind of find the “true story,” whereas you see it on a website sometimes you take it with a grain of salt. How do we change that? How do we let, say, a citizen report—and it may be just as accurate—how do we let people get in and maybe report stories, or like, say, the [political] conventions or anything like that? How do you see that shaping up in the next few years?

Adelstein: Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional media outlets having real journalists cover these stories in depth. Outlets that we can trust. We just want to make sure that there is enough variety that people can make up their own minds about the issues of the day and not have them determined by the handful of media giants. There is a real benefit to having competition and diversity. There is not as much of that as there could be, even though there are all these different opportunities, all these different channels. And the kind of clutter that people are dealing with these days, there are so many different options, but it seems that the ones that they actually turn to are controlled by a handful of folks. So we need more voices on the air, but not just controlled by the same ventriloquists.

Scheer: [Chuckles]

Harris: Bill Cosby—I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but in the ’80s, was really looking strongly at buying NBC, looking at buying the network, putting together the necessary funds. There’s been this conversation about blacks, and about Latinos even, buying major stakes in networks for about 20 years now. My question is more about you being an insider there. Will the oligopoly always win? Do you ever feel like you’re up against a wall and you’ll never really make any effect on diversity in media?

Adelstein: Well, we do feel like we’re constantly under the gun. Remember we’re up against here the most powerful media companies, some of the most politically powerful companies in America and in the world today that are pounding on our door, asking for more relief. And, frankly, it’s an amazing victory that we had in 2003 when the [FCC] chairman did the bidding of these big companies and proposed, actually, final rules that would’ve allowed them to get much bigger, and the whole issue got thrown out in the courts, partly because of the public uproar that resulted from them, partly because Commissioner [Michael J.] Copps and I laid out a real reason why these rules were inconsistent with the public interest. And now the whole issue is back in our plate again, the whole question of media ownership that we basically won in the courts in 2003 is back in our lap. We have to start from scratch, and we’re doing it under a whole new environment, where the politics of this have shifted, partly because of the election of 2006 to some extent. But the ... issue of allowing media companies to get even bigger is somewhat radioactive, politically. There’s bipartisan concern about it, the public is up in arms about it, we have new organizations, like Free Press, that are widely organized. And the public is much more sensitized to this. It’s kind of like when you become allergic to something after taking a lot of it. You become very sensitive to it. And the country has gotten a little bit allergic to media consolidation, which is a healthy thing. It is an allergy. It’s something that upsets public, as well it should. So we’re in a much better position now. So I feel ... we have a good win under our belt. Now the win is preventing something from getting worse. And you’re saying, “Now what do you do to make it better?” Well, it is a daunting challenge. But then again, I don’t think, if you look back in 2002, anybody thought we could have completely stopped the effort by these companies to allow themselves to get much bigger. And here we are in 2007 and no relaxation of the rules has occurred thanks to the efforts of not just us but a whole mass movement that emerged. So I’m hopeful that with real continued pressure on this issue we can move the ball forward, we can put the issue of diversity and minorities and women on the front burner. We can hope that somebody doesn’t have to be Bill Cosby or Stevie Wonder to own a radio or a TV station. We want to make it possible for small businesses to have their voices heard in broadcasting and we’re going to keep up the fight. We’ve won before, so we’re more optimistic that maybe in the long run we can win again.

article originally published at

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