As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The OTHER Proposed Massive Giveaway To Giant Corporations Today

Overshadowed by the Senate markup of the FISA bill including retroactive immunity for telecoms, Chris Dodd's noble hold on the bill, etc., is an item in today's New York Times that has just as damaging consequences for the future of American democracy. Apparently FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin is quietly planning to relax media ownership restrictions even MORE than they are now, an action that would prompt even more consolidation in the industry and control of the news and information media in even less hands. As it would increase the power of media conglomerates, the implications for all sorts of pernicious legislation, up to and including the destruction of net neutrality, are enormous.

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.

Among them are Samuel Zell, the Chicago investor who is seeking to complete a buyout of the Tribune Company, and Rupert Murdoch, who has lobbied against the rule for years so that he can continue controlling both The New York Post and a Fox television station in New York.

There's a 3-2 partisan split on the FCC, and the majority Republicans are down with repealing ownership restrictions. The Democrats are questioning it for now, Michael Copps is totally against it and Jonathan Adelstein is making less forceful statements, also to his credit, he called the proposal "awfully aggressive." The plan for Martin, clearly, is to woo Adelstein and call it a bipartisan approach.

Martin's predecessor, Michael Powell, tried the same thing three years ago, was taken to court over it, and lost:

Three years ago, the commission lost a major court challenge to its last effort, led by Michael K. Powell, its chairman at the time, to relax the media ownership rules. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, concluded that the commission had failed to adequately justify the new rules. Mr. Martin’s proposal would presumably include new evidence aimed at fending off similar legal challenges.

Mr. Powell’s effort, which had been supported by lobbyists for broadcasters, newspapers and major media conglomerates, provoked a wave of criticism from a broad coalition of opponents. Among them were the National Organization for Women, the National Rifle Association, the Parents Television Council and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The agency was flooded with nearly three million comments against changing the rules, the most it has ever received in a rule-making process.

What's forcing Martin's hand are some new major acquisitions by some of the biggest names in media. Sam Zell is trying to buy out the Tribune Company, and receive by proxy the "temporary waivers" that allowed Tribune to own a newspaper and a TV station in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Hartford. In addition, there's Rupert Murdoch's recent purchase of the Wall Street Journal, and his attempt to further consolidate the information market.

It can be argued that the media consolidation that we have already seen, dating from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, are in many ways directly responsible for the cheapening of information and the trivialization of American democracy that we witness today. We know that radio has become almost a two-owner game between Viacom and Clear Channel, and as a result talk radio in particular is grossly imbalanced and not reflective of the market. The lack of local participation in media management in particular has led to mass syndication and a depressing sameness around the radio dial, as well as an elimination of any local content. Consolidation has also led to a reliance on profit and meeting Wall Street expectations rather than reporting the news. Massive cuts in newsroom budgets and foreign affairs bureaus are a direct result of control from a corporation rather than anyone acting in the local interest. So newspapers rely more on AP wire stories, shared content with other papers in the conglomerate, syndicated content, and articles that are really press releases, while local broadcast "news" has cratered almost completely. People are turning to the Internet for their news and that has spurned something of an information revolution, but the vast majority of the public still gets their information from old-media sources, and that public is not being served.

A bipartisan coalition of Senators is trying to stop this in its tracks.

Chairman Martin’s secret plans were uncovered during a Commerce Committee hearing yesterday by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of the most vocal critics of media consolidation. Sen. Dorgan has co-authored a letter with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to the FCC calling for a more transparent and open public review of the media ownership rules.

“We do not believe the Commission has adequately studied the impact of media consolidation,” wrote Sens. Dorgan and Lott. “The FCC should not rush forward and repeat mistakes of the past. The Commission is under considerable scrutiny with this proceeding. We strongly encourage you to slow down and proceed with caution.”

Later, Dorgan said, “If the chairman intends to do something by the end of the year, then there will be a firestorm of protest and I’m going to be carrying the wood.”

Chairman Martin has preferred to operate in secret and broker deals that benefit major media conglomerates at the expense of the public interest. It's not likely that you'll hear much about this in newspapers or TV stations owned by those same conglomerates (Kudos to the New York Times for printing this, even if it came out in a public Congressional session).

Free Press has more. This is a big deal, and with telecom companies increasingly trying to insert themselves into media distribution as well, all of these bills are interrelated. A telecom industry immunized from lawbreaking could soon be owning the media that you watch - and they could be charging Web content producers in exchange for speedier access. The drive to beat back media ownership, net neutrality, and all of these deprivations is a classic case of people versus the powerful who have no intention of working in the public interest.

The FCC has a contact page. They should hear from you about this.

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