Big media, public to face off at Chicago FCC hearing

by Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune

If the four previous Federal Communications Commission public hearings in the current series of six on media ownership rules are any indication, the Chicago caravan stop Thursday at Rainbow/PUSH Coalition national headquarters will be exhausting, if not exhaustive.

"You'll be tired when it's over," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said. "It will start at 4 [p.m.] and probably go until midnight, until the last person has taken the mike to express their opinions. ... Do you hear some of the same refrains over and over? Yes. Do you hear some of the same concerns about the loss of localism and diversity of viewpoint and concerns of minorities? Yes, but you always get some specifics that you didn't know before."

The agenda calls for two formal panels offering industry, academic and interest-group perspectives on media ownership. But the bulk of the program will be devoted to first-come, first-heard speakers ostensibly from the general public.

At issue are supposed to be the rules concerning how many broadcast outlets a company should be allowed to own and in what combinations within a market, within the nation and with other media entities. Are broadcasters using the public airwaves as responsive to the communities they serve as they should be? Does ownership reflect the makeup and interests of those communities?

"But there will be a whole lot more talked about at these hearings, so, from my own personal view, I have some question about whether this is an efficient way of gathering information," said Jane Mago, general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, who spent more than 26 years working at the FCC. She noted that everything from unrelated FCC policies to the Iraq war and global warming have been brought up at previous hearings.

While Mago seemed somewhat amused by these detours, the stakes are very real, and perhaps nowhere more so than for Tribune Co., this paper's owner.

Chicago billionaire Sam Zell is trying to take Tribune private and needs temporary waivers on FCC restrictions concerning ownership of broadcast outlets and newspapers in a single market, such as the Chicago Tribune, WGN-Ch. 9 and WGN-AM 720 here. Plus, Tribune is counting on the FCC revising its rules to continue so-called cross-ownerships going forward, not only for Chicago, but also for New York, Los Angeles, Hartford and South Florida.

And that's precisely the sort of thing that alarms those who believe there need to be more voices and perspectives in the mix.

"Right now, too few people own too much media," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "We want more local control. We want minority ownership participation."

Even the NAB concedes there need to be more minority owners and has developed programs to encourage growth in that area. But the broadcasters also point out their business requires them to be responsive to their audience, and they cite Amber Alerts, weather warnings, public service announcements, news and charity as evidence of their commitment.

"That's fine," said Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC panel. "But that's not what's at issue here. The larger issue is how are the public airwaves being used to enhance the public interest in terms of encouraging localism and diversity and competition."

Nearly all media entities these days will point to how the Internet has changed the media landscape and how less often is proving to be more.

"Quite frankly what's going on now is disaggregation because the consolidation thing didn't work out the way people had hoped and you're fighting yesterday's war," said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune's vice president for Washington affairs. "The Internet's changing everything."

The Internet has, in fact, enabled the masses to get their messages out, not with the weight of a major broadcaster but eroding revenues for the old guard nonetheless. "And, by the way, that [revenue] pie is not growing," said Dennis Lyle, president and chief executive of the Illinois Broadcasters Association. "It's just more and more people sharing that pie."

Whether that will cut any ground at Thursday's hearing isn't clear, and whether it will affect the commissioners' stances is open to debate.

"My own personal perception is some [commissioners] have a preconceived notion of what they want to hear," NAB's Mago said. "And, if you come to these things, you can certainly hear whatever you want to hear."

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