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The Next Big Fight Over Media Ownership | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Next Big Fight Over Media Ownership

The Federal Communications Commission will again attempt to do the bidding of big media this year, with a scheme to rewrite ownership rules in much the same manner as it did in 2003. FCC chairman Kevin Martin is expected to announce Wednesday that the commission will embark upon a rulemaking initiative that will seek to make it possible for one company to own all daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same community. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.

But big media companies, which hope to reap massive profits by creating one-newsroom towns where a handful of "content providers" produce all the local print, broadcast and digital coverage of government, culture, sports and community affairs, did not accept defeat graciously. In collaboration with friendly FCC commissioners, they kept looking for an opening that would allow them to renew their demands. And they think they have found one now that the five-member commission -- which had a GOP vacancy for months -- has a newly-minted 3-2 Republican majority. [Republican commissioners, now led by Martin, have generally sided with big media companies in recent years, while Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have been stalwart defenders of divisity and competition.]

Martin, a Bush appointee with extremely close ties to a White House that has long wanted to implement rule changes favored by the generous campaign donors who own the nation's largest communications firms, has calculated that in an election year when the country's attention is focused on issues such as the war in Iraq, immigrations and mounting trade deficits, it will be possible to slip significant rule changes past an American public that is passionately opposed to them.

The FCC chair is a smarter politician than his predecessor, Colin Powell's son Michael. But Martin may have miscalculated.

Even before tomorrow's announcement of that the commission will attempt again to rewrite the rules in a manner that allows for greater concentration of ownership of local and national media by fewer companies, Martin was being challenged by members of Congress.Led by New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who chairs the Future of American Media (FAM) Caucus that was organized after the last fight over ownership rules, sixteen House members launched a preemptive strike in a letter to Martin.

The House members wrote:

We have noted with interest recent reports that you intend to revisit the issue of media ownership... If the FCC does in fact consider this issue, then we hope that the Commission will strengthen existing rules, and not further damage an already weak structure intended to protect diversity in American broadcasting. Put simply, we believe that any action on media ownership similar to what was proposed by the FCC in 2003 would be an unmitigated disaster.

Since their enactment in the 1940s, our media ownership rules have been a vital safeguard, ensuring that the power to inform the public is not inappropriately concentrated among a relative few. But since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we have seen a significant relaxation of the media ownership caps limiting the number of outlets that one company may own in a single market. The unfortunate effect has been consolidation of newspapers, television channels, radio stations, and other media under the control of a handful of giant media conglomerates. The resulting monopoly situations have forced independent broadcasters out of business, limited minority ownership, and denied the American public the wide array of content they deserve.

The FCC's 2003 proposal to weaken the local TV ownership limits, national TV ownership caps, and newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules would have delivered a fatal blow to our media ownership infrastructure. For example, if these rules had been enacted, a single corporation would have been.allowed to acquire as many as threetelevision stations, eight radio stations, and the only daily newspaper -- all within a single city. While such action would not have caused a media blackout per se, it would have essentially reduced content to a single source, rather than providing communities with the full array of information that should truly be available. As you know, millions of Americans and dozens of Senators and Representatives have contacted the FCC to express their concern about the proposed rules. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals echoed these concerns by remanding the issue back to the Commission in June 2004.

As Members of Congress who are deeply concerned about the impact that further media consolidation would have upon our democracy, we believe that the Federal Communications Commission should fulfill its intended role as a strong defender of diversity in broadcasting. We hope that the FCC will move to strengthen existing ownership rules to guarantee an array of content and wide variety of viewpoints for everyone seeking news, information, and culture across our country.

In addition to Hinchey, House members signing the letter included: California's Anna Eshoo, Barbara Lee, Diane Watson, Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey, Hawaii's Ed Case, Illinois' Jan Schakowsky, New York's Louise Slaughter, North Carolina's David Price, Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Marcy Kaptur, Oregon's Peter DeFazio, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin.

Both Sanders and Brown are ahead in the polls in contests for Senate seats from their respective states, while most of the other signers are ranking minority members on key committees and subcommittees.

Translation: This time, the FCC is going to be watched by thoughful members of Congress from the start, just as it will be dogged by a media reform movement that is dramatically bigger and better organized than in 2003. To be sure, the fight will be a serious one. And determination of Martin -- whose long-term political ambitions are no secret -- to deliver for the White House and the big-media companies it favors should not be underestimated. But if the letter from Hinchey and his colleagues is any indication, the FCC chair's not going to be able to sneak new ownership rules past anyone. In deed, Martin might find that he has created an issue that -- instead of being obscured by the 2006 election campaign -- will be central to it.

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