“This innocuous-looking document initiates the single most important public policy debate that the FCC will tackle this year,” Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps explained Wednesday, as the commission issued the “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” that initiates the next big fight over media ownership rules in the United States.
“Don’t let its slimness fool you,” added Copps. “It means that this Commission has begun to decide on behalf of the American people the future of our media. It means deciding whether or not to accelerate media concentration, step up the loss of local news and change forever the critical role independent newspapers perform for our country.”
The commission’s decision to issue the notice marks the beginning of an epic battle in the long struggle over whether to loosen ownership rules in a manner that would allow individual media companies to effectively take control of mass communications in cities across the country. But the precise nature of the fight was left unclear by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is guiding the rulemaking process.
Martin, a Bush administration appointee who is closely tied to a White House that wants to rewrite media ownership rules in a manner that will allow for a dramatic new wave of consolidation of ownership at the local level, is expected to use the process that began Wednesday to try and advance the agenda of the media conglomerates that in 2003 sought unsuccessfully to eliminate long-standing barriers to media monopoly. In a strategic shift, Martin is not proposing specifics rule changes at the start of the process. Rather, he is inviting comment on the broad issue of media ownership with the goal of then proposing and implementing specific rule changes after the public comment period is finished.
Martin hopes to avoid the public outcry that greeted the last attempt by the FCC to rewrite ownership rules — and that, ultimately, thwarted the implementation of changes that would have allowed for massive new consolidation of ownership at the local and national levels.
Martin’s attempt to confuse the rulemaking process by refusing to outline the rule changes he hopes to implement by the end of the year generated criticism even before Wednesday’s FCC meeting finished. “The manner in which the Commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate,” said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “It is like submitting a high-school term paper for a Ph.D. thesis. The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation.”
Copps and Adelstein, the FCC’s stalwart defenders of media diversity, competition and localism, made their concerns known by dissenting in part against Martin’s rulemaking initiative. Martin had the votes on the five-member commission — on which Democrats Copps and Adelstein are outnumbered by the chair and two other Republicans — to create a process that satisfies the media conglomerates. But he may not be able to deliver the changes that the corporations want.