In Milwaukee, FCC hears local views on media

by PAUL GORES, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Continued consolidation of the news media will make already-sketchy coverage of important issues worse, and American citizens should rally to prevent it.

That message was repeated early and often Thursday night as two members of the Federal Communications Commission visited Milwaukee to hear interest groups, residents, students and community leaders describe their views of local newspapers and radio and TV stations.

In fact, that same message was sounded by the two FCC commissioners themselves - former Milwaukee area resident Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein.

Copps noted that political coverage has declined on TV as media companies have grown.

"How does that serve democracy?" he asked the crowd of about 300 gathered in the Helen Bader Concert Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

Adelstein complained that local news is dominated by crime coverage and that there are "fewer reporters covering fewer issues."

The occasion for the venting of frustrations was the "Town Hall Meeting on the Future of Media," which was organized by the national media-reform organization Free Press with the help of local colleges and various groups. Eight similar gatherings have been held in other cities, with testimony sometimes lasting longer than four hours, said Free Press spokesman Craig Aaron.
Focus on broadcast media

The goal of the meetings is to collect information and foster discussion on whether further consolidation of broadcast media ownership will be harmful to local communities. Critics are concerned that the FCC, which regulates radio, television, wire, satellite and cable communications, has been trying to loosen the ownership rules too much.

In 2003, the agency voted to change some of its rules and relax media ownership regulations. For example, the FCC proposed changing how many television stations one company could own, and allowing a single firm to control multiple TV stations, radio stations and the major daily newspaper in the same market.

The move caused an uproar among critics who contend there already is too much media concentration. Congress responded to the protests by undoing the deregulation measures. Separately, a U.S. Court of Appeals threw out the changes and sent them back to the FCC for revisions.

That's essentially where the issue is now - back at the drawing board - and why Free Press organized the town hall meeting.

Although deadlines prevented coverage of the entire meeting Thursday night, one theme was clear: the bigger the media company, the less local accountability and diversity.

Local TV news is increasingly "irrelevant," said Carolyn Castore of the League of Women Voters.

"There's not much about our county budget, our candidates and what's going on in Madison," she said.

David Newby, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said "concentration crowds out contrary" views and diversity in the news media.

"Elections are treated as a horse race rather than the core of our civic life," Newby said.

The FCC consists of five members, but only the two Democrats have been making the rounds at the town hall meetings, Copps said in an interview before the session. Copps said "you learn 50 times more coming into a town hall meeting like this" than by discussing matters back in Washington D.C.

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