Media Democracy's Moment
Powell, whose political ambitions are no secret, recognizes that when even conservatives are arguing that deregulation is damaging democracy ("the truth is that media mergers have narrowed the range of information and entertainment available to people of all ideologies," wrote Safire in a recent New York Times column), it's time to pull out the moderate rhetoric. But that doesn't mean Powell has abandoned his commitment to relaxing rules. Two days after the Senate session, at a hearing at the Columbia University School of Law organized in response to commissioner Michael Copps's call for broader debate on the proposed rules changes, Powell tried to describe the current process as "a routine event." Copps shot back that there is nothing routine about what's being considered. Recounting how ill-thought-out rules changes in the Telecommunications Act had created a circumstance where "the majority of radio markets today are dominated by oligopoly," Copps said the FCC is in the midst of a "watershed" debate over "whether to visit upon the rest of the broadcast media that which we have already visited upon radio--and much, much more."
Copps and another Democratic appointee to the FCC, Jonathan Adelstein, have emerged as the commission's most consistent questioners of moves to ease ownership rules, and the loudest advocates of allowing time for more research and public input before the vote, now expected to take place by early summer. Universities have begun to respond to Copps's call for more forums--the next is on February 18 at the University of California's Annenberg School of Communications--and FCC staffers say they're now being deluged with requests from around the country.
Though Powell and the two other Republican-sponsored commissioners, Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy, have agreed to attend at least some of the informal hearings, the FCC appears to be sticking with a plan to hold only one official public hearing, on February 27 in Richmond, Virginia. Once viewed as perfunctory, the hearing is now shaping up as a major focus of dissent. Activists with the Prometheus Radio Project and other reform groups plan to rent buses and converge on Richmond--a level of engagement that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
The rising citizen interest has inspired members of Congress to begin shaping legislation designed to prevent more consolidation and to start reversing at least some of what has already occurred. GOP Senator John McCain, the new chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, grilled representatives of the Clear Channel conglomerate and the National Association of Broadcasters at a January 30 committee hearing and says that media consolidation is going to be one of his hot-button issues for 2003. McCain replaces Democrat Ernest Hollings, who along with Sanders has been one of the few Congressmen willing to take on the lobby. Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is examining the prospect of challenging broadcast monopolies, while GOP Representative Mark Foley is talking about the need for Congress to assure that citizens have access to information about policy and politics. And McCain's campaign-finance-reform comrade, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, has written legislation that would prevent the FCC from removing remaining limits on the number of radio stations a corporation can own in one community.
Feingold's Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act would also strengthen the FCC's merger review process by requiring the commission to scrutinize mergers of radio station ownership groups if those mergers might allow the new conglomerate to reach more than 60 percent of the nation's radio listeners. "The last time I checked, radio airwaves continued to be owned by the public," says Feingold, whose legislation has drawn broad support from musicians, media unions and consumer groups. "We need to remind the FCC that radio is a public medium. It must serve the public good." In a January speech that linked the struggle for media reform to broader efforts to renew American democracy the senator argued, "People should have choices, listeners should have a diversity of options, and Americans should be able to hear new and different voices. Radio allows us to connect to our communities, to our culture and our democracy. It is one of the vibrant mediums we have for the exchange of ideas, and for artistic expression. We must fight to preserve it."
Michael Bracy, director of government relations for the Future of Music Coalition, which recently produced a devastating study of the dearth of diversity in the radio industry, says it is time to start thinking about the fight for media democracy--starting with the upcoming FCC vote--as a winnable one. "I don't believe Michael Powell wants to make these sweeping rules changes on 3-to-2 votes, and it is not at all clear that there is a consensus for the changes anymore," Bracy says. "In fact, there might even be a consensus emerging in opposition to at least some of the changes." He adds, "I think Powell and the other commissioners are going to be under pressure from people in the Bush Administration who want these changes. But with the kind of activism we are seeing, and with so many members of Congress starting to speak up, it is no longer a foregone conclusion that we are going to see these rules rewritten. It is no longer a foregone conclusion that we are going to have to accept even more consolidation."
The battle over media ownership that will be waged over the next few months will be a different one than even the most optimistic critics of corporate media would have imagined just a few months ago. The outcome is very much up for grabs, and the revolution is still not being televised. But the window of opportunity for genuine media reform has been opened.