Up in Flames
Poor, poor, pitiful Michael Powell. His term as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was supposed to be easy. He thought that like FCC chairs before him, his job was to jet around the country meeting at swank resorts with the CEOs of major media companies, take some notes and then quietly implement their sweeping agenda for loosening the last significant constraints on media consolidation in the United States. Nobody except some corporate lobbyists and their political acolytes would know what was going on. Then, when his term was up, he would get a cushy job with industry or another plum political appointment. Look at his predecessor, William Kennard, who now rakes in big money brokering telecommunications deals for the Carlyle Group. It was supposed to be a win-win scenario for Powell and the people he regulated.
Instead, everything went wrong. The FCC broke its traditional lockstep and experienced a very public 3-to-2 split in June votes that narrowly endorsed six media-ownership rule changes, including one that would allow a single network to control television stations reaching 45 percent of all American households and another that would allow one media company to buy up the daily newspaper, as many as three television stations, eight radio stations and (thanks to a separate court ruling) the cable system in a single market. Then, despite the fact that Powell claimed he was acting under pressure from the judiciary, a federal appeals court blocked the changes until a full judicial review could determine whether the public interest was being damaged. A few days later, while Powell continued to insist he was relaxing the rules to meet the Congressional mandate contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the changes. All his rationales have blown up in his face like a trick cigar.
And things could be getting worse for Powell. Even as the Bush White House seeks to preserve the FCC chair's handiwork--presumably on the theory that it is payback time for big media companies, like Clear Channel, General Electric and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, that have supported Bush's campaigns--the conservative leadership in the House is faced with an unprecedented revolt among Republicans, who are signing on to a bipartisan letter that demands a vote on whether the chamber should join the Senate in disapproving the rule changes.
Powell purports to know why things have gone awry. In a remarkable series of interviews with the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNBC, Powell said the normal rule-making process had been upset by "a concerted grassroots effort to attack the commission from the outside in." Seemingly unaware that a public agency like the FCC could, in fact, be addressed by the public, he expressed amazement that as many as 3 million Americans have contacted the FCC and Congress to demand that controls against media monopoly be kept in place. Capitol Hill observers say media ownership has been the second most discussed issue by constituents in 2003, trailing only the war on Iraq. Following Brecht's famous dictum, Michael Powell wants to fire the people.
Who are these attackers of the status quo who have so upset Powell's best-laid plans? Noam Chomsky and William Safire both came out against the rule changes. So did Common Cause and the National Rifle Association. Reformer Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union and conservative Brent Bozell of the Parents Television Council co-wrote an op-ed opposing Powell's rules relaxation. People who disagree on just about everything found themselves in agreement that in this debate over whether a handful of corporations should be allowed to dominate the discourse, the already fragile health of American democracy was at stake.
Powell's attempt to co-opt this anger by organizing public hearings on insuring local content on radio and TV failed miserably. The first hearing, on October 22, in Charlotte, North Carolina, drew an overflow crowd that cheered songwriter Tift Merritt when she told Powell, "To try to talk about localism without discussing media ownership is avoiding the issue." Independent Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the leading Congressional critic of media monopoly, explains that "It is not a coincidence that everything blew up the way it did this year. The American people know they are getting less information than they had before about decisions that are being made in their name, and they know that we are passing some critical points where, if we don't act, citizens are not going to have the information they need to function in a democracy."
The diversity of the opposition confirms that the FCC rules have become a lightning rod for concerns not just about the specific issue of consolidation of media but also about a host of systemic flaws that have become evident as mass media have come increasingly to be defined by commercial and corporate concerns. People who have long felt shut out of the mainstream of American media--people of color, women, trade unionists and farmers--stood with families concerned about excessive violence and sexuality on television and in the movies. Journalists who found it harder and harder to do their job for reasons ranging from staffing cuts to inappropriate pressure to appear patriotic found common ground with activists still furious over the collapse of serious coverage of the 2000 election in general and the Florida recount fiasco. They were joined by masses of citizens who had watched with increasing disgust after September 11 as supine reporters unquestioningly accepted Administration contentions regarding the terrorist attacks and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that followed.