Hosts of public hearing don't want FCC to relax media-ownership rules

by Eric Pryne, Seattle Times

It's billed as a public hearing. It's likely to sound more like a campaign rally.

Tonight, at the downtown Seattle library, two of the five members of the Federal Communications Commission will listen to what people here have to say about media ownership — more specifically, the possibility that the FCC might relax its long-standing restrictions on how many local media outlets a single company can own.

The meeting's organizers oppose such changes. So do the two commissioners who will preside over the session, which isn't an official FCC hearing. The first scheduled speakers all are expected to condemn the looser ownership limits that many media giants want the FCC to adopt.

"It is going to be a one-sided affair," acknowledges Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, whose company is among the event's sponsors, "but there's nothing wrong with that."

The session is an opportunity for the public to counteract the influence big media companies wield behind closed doors with the FCC's majority, he said: "They don't want to come out and debate this in a public setting."

Karen Toering of the advocacy group Reclaim the Media, the event's chief organizer, said it's hoping for some dissenting voices. Supporters of relaxing the restrictions have been invited to similar unofficial hearings elsewhere in the country, she added: "They just chose not to show up."

At least one does plan to show up tonight: Andy Skotdal, vice chairman of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters. "But I could well be the only one," he said Wednesday.

The meeting is the latest skirmish in a war that began more than three years ago.

In 2003, the FCC adopted looser media-ownership rules by a 3-2 vote. One repealed a 1975 ban on "cross-ownership" of a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same city.

Under the new rule, a single company could conceivably have owned a newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in a market Seattle's size.

The 2003 rules provoked a major backlash. In 2004, a federal appeals-court panel put the changes on hold, ruling the FCC hadn't justified them adequately.

But this summer the commission announced it would take up the media-ownership question again. And FCC critics suspect the majority plans to resurrect the 2003 proposals.

The large multimedia corporations that own several of Seattle's major news outlets — Belo Corp. (KING-TV), Cox Enterprises (KIRO-TV), Tribune (KCPQ-TV) and The Hearst Corp. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) — already have filed lengthy written comments with the FCC supporting repeal of the cross-ownership prohibition.

Robert Jeffrey, who publishes ColorsNW, a magazine for and about Northwest people of color, said he will tell the FCC commissioners tonight that a newspaper and TV station under combined ownership in Seattle would make it more difficult for a publication like his to compete for advertising.

More consolidation would mean more cost-cutting and fewer local media jobs, said Jonathan Lawson, Reclaim the Media's executive director. Local news coverage also would suffer, he added.

But Skotdal, of the state broadcasters' association, said the ban on cross-ownership might actually have reduced the number of media voices in many cities. For instance, he said, it's possible cross-ownership could have saved the Dallas Times-Herald, which closed in 1991, leaving that city with just one daily newspaper.

Blethen's opposition to cross-ownership could be motivated by The Times' desire to become Seattle's only daily, Skotdal suggested.

Blethen would not discuss the Seattle implications of repeal of the cross-ownership ban. But the family-controlled Times has been involved for more than three years in a complex legal dispute with Hearst. If The Times wins, the P-I could close.

And in 2003 there was widespread speculation that New York-based Hearst might buy Seattle's KOMO-TV, a move that could have spelled trouble for The Times. Hearst might have been able to offer advertisers a combination rate for print and television advertising.

Blethen said media consolidation leads to disinvestment in local watchdog journalism, which in turns threatens American democracy.

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Media-ownership hearing

An unofficial public hearing on possible changes in the Federal Communications Commission's media-ownership rules will run from 6 to 9 p.m. today in the main auditorium of the downtown Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Statements are limited to two minutes. For more information, see www.reclaimthemedia.org

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2003454363_fcchearing30.html.

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