Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Stand Up for Better Media!

On Halloween, there was something scary happening in Washington, DC. The FCC was holding its final public hearing on localism and media consolidation, and they scheduled it only a week in advance, in the middle of the week, on a holiday. Clearly, they hoped nobody would show up.

Fortunately, thanks to the wonderful people at Free Press, there were hundreds of committed citizens there. I was one of them.

Citizens — some of whom had shown up at 4 a.m. to get in line for a chance to speak — crowded the sidewalk of the FCC for a Halloween-morning rally against media consolidation. Elected officials, civil rights and labor leaders, consumer and media reform advocates, activists and even a squad of cheerleaders all came out to urge the federal agency to stop any rule changes that could create more media consolidation.

Chairman Martin announced the Halloween hearing just a week beforehand and scheduled it during the day when most people couldn’t attend. This was just the most recent in a long line of barriers the FCC has thrown up to deter public involvement in media policymaking. In response, public interest and civil rights groups pulled together to organize a rally where the public’s voice couldn’t be ignored.

“We are gravely concerned that Chairman Martin would try to secretly move on such a critical issue with such a short timetable,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, which coordinates the StopBigMedia.com Coalition. “The public is being shut out of the process so that Martin can move forward with his Big Media giveaway.”

What's at stake here is that the FCC is threatening a move toward further loosening of restrictions on media ownership, so that the big media companies could buy up even more media outlets. They tried to do this in 2003, but there was strong public outcry against it, so it was blocked at that time. Now they're trying to do it again, and this time they hope it will slip under the radar.

Frustrating as it is to see Bush appointee Kevin Martin, the chairman of the FCC, trying to stifle public debate and give away our airwaves to big media, it was really inspiring to see the number and diversity of activists that showed up to oppose media consolidation. Almost everyone who spoke at the meeting, either on the panel of invited experts, or in the public comment period at the end, was saying that further media consolidation is a really bad idea.

I wish I had brought my camera and my notepad so that I could give a more detailed report on this, but like everyone else, I found out about the meeting rather belatedly, and it started early enough in the morning after the big Democratic debate on Tuesday that I didn't really plan anything out. It was all I could do to just show up. I was glad that many of the activists that were there came much more prepared than I was.

The panel contained a number of inspiring speakers, including Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., Kim Gandy, president of NOW, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and Andrew Jay Schwartzmann, president and CEO of Media Access Project. Citizen activists participating in the public comment period after the debate included Medea Benjamin and a group of women from Code Pink, owners of local media outlets, and the FCC cheerleading squad, which gave a hilarious satiric endorsement to media consolidation.

In addition to the hundreds of people that showed up on Tuesday, the FCC has received tens of thousands of letters against media consolidation from all over the country, including this one from presidential candidate John Edwards.

Kevin J. Martin


Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Chairman Martin:

I urge you to cease your efforts to radically rewrite the rules preventing excessive media consolidation. You and your fellow commissioners have the responsibility to ensure that our nation's media is open, democratic and as diverse as the American people, and not – like too much of our economy and our political system today – dominated by the wealthiest Americans, large corporations and their lobbyists. Rewriting the ownership rules in the manner you propose is contrary to that responsibility.

For decades, administrations of both parties and the FCC have tolerated and even encouraged the extreme consolidation of our media. In just the two years after telecommunications deregulation in 1996, the ownership of nearly half of America's radio stations changed, and by 2000, one media company had acquired over 1,100 radio stations. Eight business conglomerates now control the majority of media content in America, and two-thirds of all independently-owned newspapers have shut down since 1975.

Any benefits to consumers from vertical integration have been overwhelmed by the threats to competition, fair pricing and journalistic independence. The result of all this over-concentration, Mr. Chairman, is a poorer democracy, with a few loud corporate voices drowning out independent perspectives and local participation.

High levels of media consolidation threaten free speech, they tilt the public dialogue towards corporate priorities and away from local concerns, and they make it increasingly difficult for women and people of color to own meaningful stakes in our nation's media. Rather than further weakening efforts to ensure a diverse media, as you now propose, the FCC should instead be strengthening media ownership and concentration limits so that a few huge multinational corporations are not in charge of shaping our democracy.

When your predecessor Chairman Powell made a similar attempt, nearly 3 million highly diverse Americans wrote to the FCC to express their grave concerns. I hope that you and your fellow commissioners can find the will to continue to deny the ambitions of a small number of media executives and their lobbyists, in the interest of advancing a fuller, fairer democracy.

Yours sincerely,

John Edwards

Cc: Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein
Commissioner Michael J. Copps
Commissioner Robert M. McDowell
Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate

The public pressure does seem to be mounting, and hopefully there will be enough of it before it's too late.

If you have access to television (unlike me), don't miss Bill Moyers Journal tonight! The show will look at the FCC's rush toward media consolidation and what that means for local and minority owned media.

"The FCC has a sad history when it comes to its treatment of women and minorities in broadcasting," remarked FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein at a recent media symposium in Chicago. Adelstein concludes:
"We need to implement policies that will address this crisis before we act on any rules to further consolidate the media, which can only take media outlets further out of the reach of women and people of color."

Still, as reported in THE NEW YORK TIMES, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin seems determined to push though relaxations on media-ownership rules that currently prevent the same company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. "I think it is an appropriate time to begin a discussion to complete this rule-making and complete these media ownership issues," Chairman Martin told THE TIMES.

There's a bit of encouraging news here. The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the issue of localism and media consolidation on November 8th.

While this was the last of the FCC’s localism hearings, it won’t be the last of localism. The day after the rally and hearing, the Senate Commerce Committee announced that they were holding a hearing on localism and media ownership on Nov. 8. Responding to the flawed process at the FCC, Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), and Daniel Innoye (D-Hawaii) are increasing the pressure on Martin to serve the public interest, not rush another massive giveaway to Big Media.

Meanwhile, please, PLEASE write to your Congressional representatives TODAY and tell them to stop big media! You can do so right here.



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