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The FCC Rolls Over

by Mother Jones Thursday, Jun. 05, 2003 at 7:15 AM

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Black Caucus and Asian Pacific Congress called the FCC's rules "a blow to diversity" undermining regulations "intended to promote minority participation, and preserve multiple media voices and opinions"

The FCC Rolls Over

Mother Jones, June 3, 2003

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to loosen longstanding media ownership rules, setting the stage for a new round of growth spurts among the already mammoth conglomerates that dominate American media. The new rules allow companies to own more television stations, and to own a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market.

So far, the opinion split in the media has fallen predictably along party lines, like the FCC vote itself. Republicans are pro new rules. Democrats are con. Everyone claims that his side is the side of all things American, patriotic, and in the interest of liberty and justice for all. Democrats and progressives are more likely to use words like "public interest," "diversity" and "minority opinion" as opposed to "freedom" and "competition." The argument against the rules is that they were established to guarantee the variety of voices that is crucial to a functioning democracy. The argument for looser ownership rules is that the government should butt out, rely solely on existing anti-trust laws, and give companies the freedom to dominate an increasing number of media outlets in any given community. Conservatives also argue that competition, even between godzilla-sized titans, will increase diversity. The giants like Viacom, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and Disney have all expressed their satisfaction with the FCC's decision.

The breakdown is demonstrated nicely in the Washington Post's interesting round-up of editorials by paper, along with a description of each paper's ownership. Big companies that stand to profit from the near total domination of markets are pro. Independent outlets tend to be con.

The Rocky Mountain News, for example, a Colorado daily, opines that the new rules don't go far enough, that they "don't maximize free-market competition or encourage the most efficient corporate restructurings," and that "the FCC should have repealed them wholesale." The Rocky Mountain News is owned by the EW Scripps company, which publishes 21 dailies and owns 10 local broadcast and cable TV stations, including the Home and Garden and Food Network.

The New York Times was among the minority of papers in larger-sized chain to say, "Though often discussed in eye-glazing arithmetic terms, these media ownership rules are about preserving competitive media markets that enrich, instead of thwart, the exchange of information and viewpoints that are at the heart of our democracy."

The FCC's decision to loosen the rules, despite public protest and without a fight in court, is a political one. The commission is following the lead of a conservative administration. As former FCC chair Reed Hundt told Salon "let's just say that the Bush administration does not think that the big winners in the media consolidation game will be either the New York Times or the Washington Post." Hundt sees the current rules as another chapter in an ongoing political battle, stretching back through Newt Gingrich's Republication Revolution. Hundt says the new rules are the "culmination of the attack by the right on the media since the independent media challenged and helped topple Richard Nixon."

The fight against these rules now falls to Congress and the courts. A group of lawmakers has vowed to take up the struggle, and while Democrats are leading the charge, there's anger on both sides of the aisle (who knew Trent Lott cared about media diversity?). As The Hill reports:

"[This] will be seen as a decision that is both dumb and dangerous," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) at a press conference with senators from both sides of the aisle who opposed the new rules.

Dorgan is considering introducing legislation with Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that would block the FCC's action.

Anger was not confined to the Senate or to the Democrats. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said: "A lot of Republicans, in fact probably most of the Republicans in Congress would not agree with this decision."

Politicians from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Black Caucus and Asian Pacific Congress also released a written statement calling the FCC's rules "a blow to diversity" that would undermine regulations "intended to promote minority participation, and preserve multiple media voices and opinions in the electronic and print media industries."

But the most remarkable fact, and the politicians' best weapon in the upcoming fight, may be the huge public outcry that preceded the new rules. The New York Times reports that:

"More than 520,000 comments on the proceeding were sent in by citizens. And as the two dissenting commissioners pointed out in their statements today, nearly all of them were against relaxing the media ownership rules.

While the public opposition did not dissuade Mr. Powell and his two Republican colleagues on the commission from voting in favor of the rule changes, some consumer advocates say the protests may have helped set some boundaries -- like the slight tightening of radio ownership rules -- and could prove useful as some members of Congress seek to roll back the F.C.C.'s actions and opponents mount appeals in federal court.

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