Two Steps Back

The Federal Communications Commission has voted to loosen media ownership laws, allowing one company to own television stations that reach forty-five percent of the American viewing audience (up from thirty-five percent). The new rules also permit cross-media ownership. Now, one corporation can own both a television station and a newspaper in the same market.

On June 2, the FCC concluded its third biennial review and voted 3-2 along party lines (Republicans and Democrats, respectively) in favor of the new rules. The proposed changes provoked much discussion among voters, lawmakers, and even FCC commissioners. Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps—who cast the two dissenting votes—were instrumental in organizing a series of public forums at which proposed changes were discussed. According to the commission, more than 520,000 comments regarding media ownership laws were filed over the past twenty months. Seventeen thousand were filed by individuals, with the balance collected through various groups.

In a June 2 press release, Adelstein, who is a junior member of the commission, said that “public opposition [to the changes] is nearly unanimous, from ultraconservatives to ultraliberals.” The proposed deregulation drew criticism from organizations as diverse as AIVF, the feminist activist group CodePink (who were removed by the police from the June 2 proceedings), and the National Rifle Association. In a May 30 Washington Post op/ed piece, Ted Turner criticized the proposed changes: “They will stifle debate, inhibit new ideas, and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete.”

In his own press statement on June 2, Powell acknowledged the opposition but took a different view. “[W]e documented the state of the entire industry, empirically analyzed different transactions and their effect on our diversity goals, and—most importantly—sought the views of our citizens,” wrote Powell. “I have heard the concerns expressed by the public about excessive consolidation. Though such generalized worries do not clearly suggest specific answers to the specific issues the Commission must address, they have introduced a note of caution in the choices we have made.”

“[The Republican commissioners] had a real belief that these things needed to be relaxed,” said Adelstein in a June 2 interview with The Independent, “and as public comment came in in opposition, they didn’t alter their approach. . . . The public view wasn’t ever particularly something that altered their belief that this needed to be done.

“The [new rules] argue that the market is essentially inefficient because of outdated structural rules, and there’s a need to get rid of some rules in order to free up some capital that’ll be channeled into better programming,” he continued. “The problem for me is, I didn’t make the leap between keeping more resources in the sector by consolidation and better programming for the public.”

Powell could not be reached for comment.

Adelstein and Copps urged Powell to postpone the vote to allow both the public and Congress to review and comment upon the proposed changes, arguing that a June 2 vote would be a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Under the act, laws must be published in the Federal Register before they can be implemented.

The new rules can still be challenged. In Adelstein’s June 2 press statement, he declared: “When this full document [of the changes] is finally made public, I expect it will be torn apart by media experts, academics, consumer groups, activists, and most of all, the American people. They will find it riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, false assumptions, and outcome-driven thinking.”

“Congress is a higher authority than us,” said Adelstein for The Independent, “and they can always change whatever it is that we’ve done, within the bounds of the Constitution. And of course the courts can always overturn us.”

When the new rules are challenged, it will be through the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. In a June 2 interview with The New York Times, former FCC official Blair Levin speculated that “the court will very likely give [the rules] discretion.”
Concluded Adelstein: “The public just needs to stay on top of this issue and not give up.”

These new laws came shortly after Powell’s May 19 announcement that the FCC would develop a federal advisory committee to assist the FCC in addressing diversity issues. Headed by Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis chief Jane E. Mago, the committee will help the agency to (according to the May 19 public notice) “formulate new ways to create opportunities for minorities and women in the communications sector.”

The FCC was founded in 1934 and regulates the country’s radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The five members of the FCC are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and no more than three can be of the same political party.

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Charlie Sweitzer is a New York-based writer.