FCC Still Shilling For Big Media

From the New York Times:

“The head of the Federal Communications Commission has circulated an ambitious plan to relax the decades-old media ownership rules, including repealing a rule that forbids a company to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.”

“Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the commission, wants to repeal the rule in the next two months – a plan that, if successful, would be a big victory for some executives of media conglomerates.”

The New York Times, a big media conglomerate, is severely understating the impact of these proposed rules. By relaxing ownership caps, the FCC will be exacerbating a problem that is already destroying free and diverse media in this country. In the past 25 years, the number of companies that controlled the majority of media output plunged from 50 to 5. The FCC thinks that that is a positive trend and is doing its best to sustain and advance it.

This is not the first time the FCC has taken such steps. The previous chairman, Michael Powell, tried to ram through similar rules but was beat back by the public and reversed by the courts. Martin is pretending to rectify Powell’s errors by staging events ostensibly to collect public opinion. However, he is now brazenly ignoring that opinion.

A year ago the FCC held hearings in Los Angeles that demonstrated a passionate opposition to further consolidation. The audience was probably 90+ percent opposed to relaxing ownership caps. That story was repeated in seven more cities where the FCC brought its show. Now Martin is justifying his proposed new rules by claiming that they were drafted with input from the public. The only problem is that nowhere in his proposal are the public’s views represented. It’s as if they never existed.

Tell the FCC: Stop Big Media
The FCC’s genuflection to Big Media was blocked last time because Americans in unprecedented numbers demanded fairness and independence. We must do so again. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan has long been a leader in this fight. Let him know that you appreciate his courage in taking on the media, an institution that could do him much harm. Also, visit FreePress and its affiliate Stop Big Media. Their site is stocked with information and tools to help you be an effective advocate for media reform.

This is a serious matter and demands a commitment to fight. Chairman Martin is determined to reward his Big Media patrons. No matter what other issue you are involved with, it is this issue that shapes the outcome. You cannot end the war in Iraq, or pass universal health care, or advance environmental protections, or [fill in the blank] without access to media that is responsible and accountable to citizens. It’s time to get to work…again.

FCC Chief Fucks Up

The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin Martin, had some choice words in response to a court ruling yesterday. The case before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York concerned whether the FCC can regulate and penalize broadcasters for spontaneous profanities aired during live television programs. The court ruled that

“The FCC’s decision is devoid of any evidence that suggests a fleeting expletive is harmful, let alone established that this harm is serious enough to warrant government regulation. The order provides no reasoned analysis of the purported ‘problem’ it is seeking to address from which this court can conclude such regulation of speech is reasonable.”

Chairman Martin was less than pleased (PDF) with the court’s conclusion…

“I completely disagree with the Court’s ruling and am disappointed for American families. I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that “shit” and “fuck” are fine to say on broadcast television during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience.”

Martin, however, doesn’t seem to have a problem with saying “shit” and “fuck” on the Internet, which children have also been known to use from time to time.

Meet The (Message Control) Press

The trial of Scooter Libby, for lying about outing an undercover CIA agent, has always promised to deliver long held secrets of intrigue and deceit from the White House. And with the participation of so many figures from the media (i.e. Judith Miller, Matt Cooper, Bob Novak, Tim Russert, etc.), there has also been the tantalizing prospect of embarrassing divulgences from that arena as well. Now the first of those promises is being kept.

When former Cheney communications director, Cathie Martin, testified yesterday, she outlined the options that the vice-president should consider in response to allegations that the White House was manipulating intelligence to promote its case against Iraq. Her testimony included the following:

Option 1: “MTP-VP”, she wrote, then listed the pros and cons of a vice presidential appearance on the Sunday show. Under “pro,” she wrote: “control message.”

“I suggested we put the vice president on ‘Meet the Press,’ which was a tactic we often used,” Martin testified. “It’s our best format.”

I can’t wait to hear Tim Russert’s response to this revelation that his program was a preferred dumping ground for administration propaganda. Martin detailed practices designed to bury bad news and otherwise distract the press. Then she complained that reporters didn’t accept her word and even stopped calling. That speaks well of certain members of the press, but also reveals how transparent her machinations must have been.

In addition to cracking the door a bit on the VP’s media connivances, it was also disclosed that Cathie Martin is the wife of FCC chairman, Kevin Martin. In an administration rife with cronyism, it seems a little too convenient that the VP’s director of communications is sleeping with the head of the federal agency responsible for regulating the media companies she has been lying to.

The FCC’s Ownership Quandry

The Federal Communications Commission is getting it from both sides.

A consortium of broadcasters and publishers wrote to Chairman Kevin Martin, to complain that they still don’t have as much of a stranglehold on the public’s attention as they would like. The letter was signed by all of the broadcast networks as well as radio giant Clear Channel, newspaper conglomerates Gannett and Tribune, and others. Here is a taste of their finely aged whine:

“…television and radio broadcasters are experiencing unprecedented challenges in maintaining their audience shares and the advertising revenues essential to the survival of non-subscription media.”

This complaint is based on the emergence of a vast array of new outlets available to today’s news and entertainment consumer. What they conveniently fail to mention is that they also own most of the new outlets that they accuse of taking their business away. They go on to implore the Commission to amend ownership rules…

“…to ensure that local television and radio broadcasters, as well as daily newspapers, are not unfairly hampered in their ability to serve the public.”

That request would be easier to take seriously if they were presently serving the public. That opinion is shared by a group of senators that sent a letter to Chairman Martin on the same day. Senator Byron Dorgan wrote the letter that was signed by eight other members of the Commerce committee.

“The FCC must first establish that there are sufficient mechanisms in place to ensure that broadcasters are serving their local communities before considering any changes to the ownership rules.”

So what will the FCC do? Will they bend to the will of their corporate overlords? Or will they accept the fact that, come January, the Democrats will be running Congress and chairing the committees that oversee the agency? My guess is they punt. There is an unfinished report on localism that they can use as an excuse to delay making a decision. When we see the conclusions in that report, we’ll know which way they intend to vote on new ownership rules.

For anybody handicapping the outcome, I wouldn’t bet on the FCC weighing in against the business crowd. So that means that we, the people, will have to stay vigilant and make sure they remember for whom they work.

The FCC Weapons of Mass Comminication Tour 2006

The people do not want bigger media monopolies stuffing homogenized content from corporate headquarters down the throats of local consumers.

In the first of six public meetings on new rules for media ownership, members of the Federal Communications Commission brought their dog and pony show to Los Angeles. All five commissioners were present before a standing room only crowd of over 500.

The opening statements foreshadowed the predictably fixed predispositions of the commissioners.

The Dogs:
Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioner Robert McDowell gave lip service to the importance of public input, but their remarks were typical Washington pablum that offered no substance. Commissioner Deborah Tate provided even less, but she had the excuse of having a throat ailment and was unable to speak.

The Ponies:
Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein, on the other hand, delivered detailed and passionate speeches that stirred the audience. Representative of their views were remarks from Adelstein that called for a media that would pursue the public interest, not the interest of those who seek profit from public airwaves. He discussed how program creators used to worry about the story content, and characters, but that now they worry about getting Coca-Cola in the scene. And he lamented the fact that, on many stations, real investigative reporting had been replaced by video news releases.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters was there to take on the Tribune Company and it’s request for a permanent waiver that would allow it to own both the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV. That arrangement is in violation of FCC rules, for which they currently have a temporary waiver. After itemizing Tribune’s failures to operate in the public interest, she insisted that the permanent waiver be denied by stating flatly that, “They don’t deserve it.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out that too few companies owned too much media at the expense of the people. Marshall Herskovitz, president of the Producers Guild, observed that the media is a huge industry and that they would make money even if they were broken up into 100,000 pieces. Mike Mills of R.E.M. brought the perspective of musicians that are held hostage to the radio conglomerates that dictate playlists and eliminate local programming. And Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, confronted Chairman Martin with the hypocrisy of the FCC’s policy on publishing research. Read his statement here.

The Show:
After commentaries by the commissioners and the panelists, the public was invited to speak. Of the approximately 30 citizens that rose to address the panel, all but one advocated an end to the ever more permissive policy of consolidated ownership. Some of their stories were broadly stated views of the industry and its impact on independent business and localism. Some were deeply personal stories of how concentrated ownership damaged or ended careers.

The sole dissenter from these views was a representative of the conservative astroturfers, FreedomWorks. The firm is headed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey and lobbies for the kind of deregulation of media companies that would allow them to own as many properties as they want in any market. Their representative was roundly booed, but defiantly delivered his pro-monopoly message anyway.

If the commissioners were listening to the citizens at this meeting, they surely received an unmistakable and unified message. The people do not want more media consolidation. They do not want bigger media monopolies stuffing homogenized content from corporate headquarters down the throats of local consumers. They want the commission to restore opportunities for small, independent artists, producers, and businesses. This may have been just the first of the series of meetings to be held, but if the others follow suit, then we must expect and demand progressive reform from the commission.

It’s not too late to have your say. The FCC is accepting public comments until December 21, 2006. The last time these rules were revised, the FCC’s attempt to rush through its business friendly regs was derailed by over 3 million citizens voicing their disapproval. We have that power and we have to use it again. Visit Stop Big Media and use their forms to submit your comments. No, really…Do It! The effect is real and it’s a long ways to 3 million. Every comment counts.

FCC Censors Itself On Local Ownership

A report written in 2004 by researchers at the Federal Communications Commission found that local ownership of broadcasters enhanced coverage of community issues. That conclusion directly contradicts prior arguments made by the Commission that claimed consolidation aided localism. The research analyzed over 4,000 hours of news programming and was conducted by veteran media professionals. Michael Powell, Bush crony and corporate media lackey, was the FCC Chairman, at the time the report was produced.

So what happened to this report? According to an FCC attorney, an order was issued that “every last piece” of the report be destroyed. This document, produced at taxpayer expense, was anathema to an agency that has been mightily striving to accommodate the monopolistic interests of Big Media. It could not be allowed to survive.

However, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) obtained a stray copy of the report and questioned current FCC Chair Kevin Martin about it during committee hearings. He claimed never to have seen the report or to have received the letter Boxer had previously sent inquiring as to its status. Either the Powell administration at the FCC effectively erased any evidence of the report from the agency’s files, or Martin is lying. But the stone-walling by the agency is continuing and it remains to be seen if Martin will eventually provide a satisfactory response. If he does not, Boxer has promised to request an investigation by the FCC Inspector General.

Let’s hope this process can conclude before the FCC succeeds in passing new regulations that will allow the expanded consolidation that this report proves will be harmful to the public’s interest.

Update: Former FCC chief, Michael Powell, emerged to plead ignorance, saying through his assistant that…

“he never saw the report, he never heard of the report until yesterday and he certainly never ordered anything destroyed or stopped.”

Also, Sen. Boxer has fulfilled her promise and formally requested an investigation by the FCC Inspector General.

FCC Chief: Too Many Voices In The News

The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin Martin, told an audience of newspaper publishers that he supports repealing the ban on cross-ownership that prohibits owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. These rules promote greater diversity for news consumers, but Martin would prefer to pander to the media conglomerates he is supposed to be regulating.

In support of his contention that cross-ownership regs hurt publishers, he raises the point that there are some 300 fewer newspapers today than when the regs went into effect 30 years ago. However, it is far more likely that the decline in papers was caused by too much consolidation, not too little.

Martin made clear whose side he is on and, as evidence of his allegiences, he tells the Newspaper Association of America that it is their responsibility to change public opinion that presently favors current law.

“The public is not convinced of the need to change these rules, and if you can’t convince the public, our chances to do that are dim.”

It might be nice if the FCC were advocating on behalf of the public instead of implying that the only thing holding back the publisher’s rule change is the public’s failure to be convinced of the rule’s harm. It might be nice if the FCC recognized that the public just may know what is in it’s own best interest.