In Seattle, 1100 stand up for media diversity in marathon hearing

photo: Jake WargaAdvocates of diverse media, local media accountability, and quality journalism are seeing Friday's FCC media ownership hearing as a triumph. Over 1100 people attended the nine-hour marathon hearing, making it the largest of six such meetings designed to gather public opinion, as the FCC considers proposals to let big media companies buy up even more local TV and radio stations.

The five Commissioners attending the hearing stayed onstage at Seattle's Town Hall until 1am listening to passionate pleas to reject further media consolidation. A diverse range of northwesterners from five states stepped forth to testify -- despite the fact the hearing was announced just five business days in advance. Nearly everyone who spoke opposed deregulation, following a pattern established at previous hearings.

"The turnout in Seattle was phenomenal -- in sheer numbers, but also in the breadth and depth of testimony," said Jonathan Lawson, director of Reclaim the Media. "Despite the absurdly short notice, which kept many out-of-state, rural and working people from attending, the Commissioners heard hours of impassioned and articulate testimony from people across the Northwest, and from across the political spectrum. That more than 1100 people sacrificed their time to attend this fly-by-night hearing demands that they be heard all the way in Washington, D.C."

Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire (D) opened the hearing on a fiery note, chastising FCC Chairman Kevin Martin for not giving Northwest residents ample time to prepare for the hearing. Gregoire urged: "We need competition, not concentration. We need diversity, vitality and local perspectives. I ask you to ensure that our citizens have access to multiple sources of information and perspectives."

Alarm over media consolidation crossed party lines. "I have a number of concerns with the hearings process and the underlying policy proposals," said Republican State Attorney General Rob McKenna. County Councilmember Reagan Dunn added, "I'm a Republican and I'm a capitalist. But some areas of our private sector must be regulated."

Senator Maria Cantwell (D) and Representatives Jay Inslee (D) and Dave Reichert (R) sent recorded statements expressing concern over the impact of media concentration on local Northwest communities. On Thursday, Cantwell co-sponsored the "Media Ownership Act of 2007," a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that would put the brakes on Chairman Martin's plan to gut media ownership limits by the end of the year.

Seattle Town Hall was close to capacity before the hearing had even started, with dozens lined up hours in advance for their chance to give two minutes of testimony. More than 280 people signed up to speak, and the assembled Commissioners opted to extend the hearing well past the announced end time of 11pm in order to accommodate all speakers.

"Did you ever notice that the FCC is always ready to run the fast break for Big Media, but it's the four-corner stall when it comes to serving the public interest?" asked FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in his opening statement.

The FCC listened to two panels comprised of publishers, broadcasters, community activists, academic experts, industry representatives and union leaders. Throughout the night, opponents of consolidation were treated to boisterous cheers and standing ovations from the large crowd.

"In a town where over 50 percent of this community is Latino, our radio station is the only media owned by Latinos," said panelist Erubiel Valladares Carranza of KPCN-LP, a farmworker-owned-and-operated radio station in Woodburn, Ore. "We need more low power FM, and less corporate radio standing in our way."

The Seattle hearing was the sixth and last of a series of public forums being held across the country by the FCC as it considers whether to lift longstanding media ownership limits. Past hearings were held in Los Angeles; Nashville, Tenn.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Tampa, Fla.; and Chicago, Ill.

"I have watched, listened to or attended all of the six hearings," said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press. "One thing is clear. The public is overwhelmingly opposed to any rule changes that would unleash a new wave of media consolidation. Despite what high-paid industry lobbyists have told you on their daily rounds at the FCC, media consolidation is bad for us all. Do your jobs and do the right thing for the benefit of our democracy."

The FCC's lack of public notice for the hearing had many local residents skeptical about the federal agency's willingness to listen to the overwhelming public opposition to the proposed changes.

"I am afraid that these hearings are just cosmetic," said David Deschler, emeritus faculty of Cornell University. "By participating in this hearing I am colluding with a mere marketing exercise designed to hide the fact that the decision about media ownership has already been made."

The short notice did not stop two 12-year-old sisters, Amanda and Irena Anderson. In her testimony Amanda said, "I am against media consolidation because kids are the future and that's me. I believe a diverse media ownership would be healthier for our democracy."

"Here tonight, residents of the Pacific Northwest have the last word," concluded Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

Pacifica Radio provided live coverage of the hearing, anchored by KPFA's Larry Bensky and KBCS' Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti. The hearing was filmed by The Seattle Channel and streamed live by Online Video Service. Links to archived audio and video will be posted at reclaimthemedia.org as soon as available.

More details and coverage of the hearing will be posted soon at www.reclaimthemedia.org, along with information on next steps as the struggle over media ownership moves into its next phase.

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