Change At FCC And Congress: Good News For Media Reform

The signature slogan for the 2008 campaign season was a single word that can spark a thousand interpretations: CHANGE! [It narrowly beat out “Maverick” and “You Betcha”] And change there will be.

This week, something happened in the House of Representatives that is almost unheard of. The sacred principle of seniority was set aside when Henry Waxman of California booted John Dingell of Michigan from the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell had been chairing the committee since the flood of Noah, and through most of his tenure he was a friend to the industries over which he had jurisdiction. Waxman, on the hand, is known for his work on the Government Oversight Committee as a bulldog who kept a close watch on the people’s interests. He held numerous hearings to investigate corporate abuse, greed, and corruption.

Since the FCC falls within the Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction, there is good reason to assume that Waxman will put them on a short leash. He is an advocate of Network Neutrality and strict enforcement of anti-trust law. He has been deeply involved with environmental and healthcare issues for many years and will likely want to focus on those matters. Consequently, he may leave a lot of the media-related heavy lifting to Ed Markey, chair of the Telecom subcommittee. Markey is an ally who’s views and priorities are in sync with Waxman.

Combine these adjustments in the House with news that the Senate Commerce Committee is undergoing its own upheaval and there is real hope for reform. Jay Rockefeller will be taking the gavel from Daniel Inouye, another old-time industry bull. Rockefeller is far more likely to support initiatives for far-sighted projects like universal broadband (making the Internet more like a utility that is available to everyone). He will get help from Sen. Byron Dorgan, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce, who has sponsored legislation to reduce the number of television stations and newspapers that a corporation can own.

In addition to these leaders in Congress, the makeup of the FCC is going to change as well. Barack Obama has gotten off to good start by naming a couple of knowledgeable and forward-looking academics to lead his Transition Team: Susan Crawford and Kevin Werbach. He has also tapped Julius Genachowski and Blair Levin, both top aides to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, as advisors. One of them may turn out to be the new FCC chair. And given Obama’s own statements on the media, there is more potential for positive developments in the next eight months than there has been in the past eight years. Here is an excerpt from the Technology statement on his website:

“As president, Obama will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.”

There is much to be done to recover from the past few years of regressive policy and obedience to corporate domination. But this is as promising a beginning as one can expect. It is now up to the new administration to follow through, and an active citizenry to be vigilant and vocal.