"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.
At the top of the corporate wish list is the elimination of the "cross-ownership" rule that prevents a single company from buying buy up all the 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 metropolitan area. 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.
Martin's new rulemaking process is another attempt to get rid of the FCC's bar on cross-ownership. Yet, even with Martin's attempt to obscure the debate, the likelihood is that opposition to this specific rule change will come through loud and clear during the 120-day public comment period that and in the "half a dozen" public hearings that the chairman anticipates.
"The prohibition against owning a local broadcaster and a local newspaper in the same market is critical to preserving what the Supreme Court called ‘antagonistic sources of news' at the local level," says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the union that represents newspaper reporters and editors. "While some argue that the onset of digital communications provides many sources for national and international news, the vast majority of Americans get local news from either their local TV stations or their local newspaper. Our members know firsthand that the goal of media consolidation is to gain economic efficiencies. The result is merged news operations and reduced numbers of reporters covering local stories."
Foley's message will be amplified by a broad national campaign to assure that the FCC gets the message that Americans want to maintain media competition in their hometowns.
Unlike in 2003, when opposition to the rule changes proposed by the FCC majority built slowly over a number of months, this time the opposition is already organized. With the announcement of the rulemaking process came the debut of a new StopBigMedia.com coalition that includes Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Council of Churches, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press and other church, labor, consumer, community and media reform groups.
In addition to challenging moves to rewrite ownership rules to benefit big media companies, the coalition will police the rulemaking process. If Martin continues to manipulate it in a manner that confuses issues and undermines debate, coalition members say that any rule changes the chairman might get approved by the FCC will be challenged in the Congress and the courts.
"The essence of democratic government is to give the people a chance to effectively participate in writing the rules under which they live," says Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a veteran observer of the regulatory process. "This Notice denies the public the opportunity to comment on the actual rules that will govern the media in America, since no rules are proposed. If the Commission does not allow further comment, the courts should reject this sham."
The likelihood of Congressional intervention remains real, as well. Moments after rulemaking notice was issued, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus, declared that, "In 2003-2004, the FCC ignored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who expressed their opposition to the proposed rules during the public comment period, and only held one public hearing outside of Washington to hear what the public had to say. This was a grave mistake, and one that the Commission should not repeat. The American public has a right to know the full implications of these proposals and they have a right to be heard by the FCC. I will continue using the power of my office to ensure that this is a lengthy, open and transparent process."
Ideally, of course, the FCC will hear enough from the American people during the four-month comment period to recognize that there is no public support for regulatory shifts that help big media to get even bigger. That recognition might make even Kevin Martin -- an ambitious Republican who would like to run for the governorship in his home state of North Carolina -- think twice before using his position of public trust to do the bidding of the communications conglomerates.