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When the Federal Communications Commission voted June 2 to remove key restrictions on media consolidation, dissident Commissioner Michael Copps warned, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant. American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."
Barely two weeks after Copps uttered those words, he was proven right, as the Senate Commerce Committee responded with rare haste to the public outcry that followed the FCC decision. In a sweeping rejection of the agency's decision to provide already large media conglomerates with opportunities to extend their dominance of the nation's political and cultural discourse, the committee on Thursday endorsed a legislative package that reverses the worst of the rule changes. The legislation also orders the FCC to open up the closed and corrupted process by which it considers rule changes.
While the Commerce Committee action is just the first step toward reversing the FCC decision, Gene Kimmelman, Consumers Union's Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, says, "Today's vote creates enormous momentum to block further mergers among media giants. It represents a victory for those who support more competition and diversity from local and national media. But the fight is not over. Now we are going to carry this momentum to the full Senate and House."
The legislation that cleared the Commerce Committee Thursday would:
* Bar individual corporations from buying up television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's households. Under pressure from big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Fox networks, and Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UBN networks, the FCC had voted to lift the ownership cap to 45 percent.
* Bar individual corporations from buying up the daily newspaper and television and radio stations in local markets. By restoring key aspects of the old "newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership" rule, the committee made it harder for the Gannett, Tribune and Knight-Ridder media corporations to gain control of most media in a community and then create a single newsroom to feed one-size-fits-all news to newspaper readers as well as radio listeners and television viewers. (This measure still needs to be strengthened to assure that a loophole that allows for some cross-ownership in small markets is not exploited.)
* Eliminate an exemption that would have allowed radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel and Infinity, to maintain control of radio stations in markets where they are in violation of ownership caps. Sponsored by Commerce Committee chair John McCain, R-Arizona, this measure could force Clear Channel and other media giants to sell off many of its more than 1,200 radio stations.
* Require the FCC to open up its decision-making process by holding at least five official public hearings, at locations around the country before changing media ownership rules. This is a clear rebuke to FCC chair Michael Powell, who allowed only one official public hearing before the June 2 vote.
* Indicate that Congress wants the FCC to consider not just proposals to loosen ownership rules that are promoted by big media corporations but also steps to strengthen and broaden limits on consolidation and monopoly. This is a signal to the federal courts that Congress wants them to define the public interest more broadly, rather than simply pressuring the FCC to ease ownership rules.
"The airwaves belong to the people," declared U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, as the committee approved key components of the "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Act of 2003" (S.1046) initiative. "Broadcasters use them, under licenses that require localism and a diversity of voices. The actions taken by the FCC to raise the national ownership cap and virtually eliminate the previous ban on broadcast-newspaper combinations ignores that requirement, and advances corporate interests at the expense of the public's interest."
Hailing the committee vote as a firm Congressional response to FCC moves he described as "the fastest, most complete cave in to big corporate interests" he had ever seen, Dorgan said the legislation "restores some sense of reason to this process."
The legislation, which was endorsed by a solid voice vote of the committee, gained bipartisan support from senators who had been flooded with emails, letters and petitions urging them to reverse the FCC's moves. While the total number of communications to members of the committee is not yet clear, it is known that members of Congress have received more than 300,000 messages from foes of the rule changes in the period since June 2. This follows on the unprecedented 750,000 communications that the FCC received from opponents of the rule changes.
Dorgan and other critics of the FCC's moves say their hand has been strengthened significantly by the level of public indignation. But they still have work to do before citizen anger and legislative action restores limits on media consolidation. With support from key senators such as Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the legislation has a change to move forward in the Senate. But barriers are likely to be erected by members of the leadership who are close to the Bush administration, which pressured the three Republicans on the FCC to enact the rule changes.
The task will be even tougher in the House of Representatives, where House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, has indicated his determination to preserve the rule changes. Tauzin, like several other key GOP players in the House, has been a major recipient of campaign contributions from the communications industry, and the Louisiana representative has a record of playing hardball when his corporate allies are threatened.
But Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, says the momentum on behalf of legislation to reverse the FCC is growing. "The Democrats in Congress have started to take these issues a lot more seriously," says Sanders, a veteran advocate for media diversity. "And I am now being approached on a regular basis by Republicans, some of them very conservative, who say the FCC went way too far this time."
Ultimately, Sanders said in recent meetings with his Vermont constituents, the question of whether the FCC changes are reversed rests with the American people. If the level of opposition that has been witnessed in recent weeks is maintained, Sanders says, "If the mail keeps coming, if people keep complaining, members of Congress are going to recognize that they can't hide from this issue."
MILWAUKEE -- When Democratic party activists from across Wisconsin gathered for their party's state convention last weekend, they heard speeches from three presidential candidates and surrogates for several others. They also witnessed the arrival of a new political issue that may turn out to be a significant factor in the elections of 2004.
In speech after speech to the delegates and guests at the convention, members of Congress condemned the June 2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to weaken the few remaining barriers to consolidation of media ownership by the corporate conglomerates that already dominate most of America's political debate and cultural discourse. And the crowd responded with enthusiastic cheering and applause.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the delegates and guests were not cheering populist criticisms of media consolidation and bias by their party's presidential candidates. That's because the candidates failed to focus on media issues. Rather, the crowd was cheering members of Wisconsin's Congressional delegation, who made media ownership issues central to their speeches at the convention. Therein lies the challenge for the Democrats who would be president: Will they recognize in time that media ownership issues have become critical concerns for the grassroots activists who will be critical players in naming the party's 2004 nominee?
The candidates cannot claim ignorance. They all criticized the FCC decisions when they were made. Yet,they have yet to recognize the potential this issue has as an old-fashioned populist political tool.
Certainly, the response of Wisconsin Democrats to the speeches that addressed media ownership issues illustrates the extent to which they have become meaningful matters for their state's party activists. And Wisconsin is not so different from other states. After more than 750,000 Americans contacted the FCC to oppose the rule changes, members of Congress started to wake up to the mood of the country. Now, with more than 100 Democratic members of Congress actively engaged in efforts to reverse the FCC rule changes -- and with dozens of Republicans joining them -- there is a dawning awareness that concerns about media consolidation, monopoly and bias are no longer limited to inside-the-beltway debates between industry lobbyists and watchdog groups.
As members of Congress prepare to take steps to reverse FCC decisions that would loosen rules governing against media consolidation at the local and national levels, the speeches and responses in Milwaukee illustrated the extent to which the Washington insider debate had moved outside to America.
Warning that "the health of democracy is put at risk" when media monopolies are allowed to extend their reach, U.S. Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, drew thunderous applause when he declared, "We cannot afford homogenized news from mega-corporations."
Decrying the warped reporting on events in Washington by "the corporate U.S. news media," U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, a member of the Judiciary Committee, earned a standing ovation for her declaration that, "Restoring democracy to our news media had got to be a part of our Democratic agenda."
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, a pioneering supporter of Congressional efforts to restore controls against media monopoly, echoed Baldwin's call for Democrats to make media ownership an issue in 2004.
Portraying the FCC decision on the ownership rules as another example of Washington bowing to pressure from corporate lobbyists, Feingold said that Democrats need to "show the American people that it's the Democratic party that wants to hear all the diverse voices of America -- not just the corporate few."
Feingold's comments drew chants of "Go get 'em, Russ" from the crowd of more than 1,000 grassroots party activists.
With Obey, Baldwin and Feingold speaking before them, the Democratic presidential contenders should have recognized the potency of the issue. But they didn't.
The three Democratic presidential candidates who attended the convention were all outspoken in their criticism of the FCC in early June. Two of them -- U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio -- are working in Congress with Feingold, Obey, Baldwin, amd key members like U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, and U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and to rescind rule changes that favor media corporations over diversity, competition and local content. But Kerry, Kucinich and the third candidate who appeared at the weekend convention, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, failed to put the same emphasis on media issues that the delegates heard from their Wisconsin representatives.
There's a lesson in this for all of the 2004 presidential contenders. Grassroots Democrats -- along with Greens, Independents and a growing number of Republicans -- want issues of media monopoly, consolidation and commercialization on the national agenda. The smart candidates will be the ones who share in that recognition, and who speak to it with the insight and the passion that Feingold, Baldwin and Obey display. In a presidential contest where Democrats are still trying to define themselves, a willingness to raise media ownership issues on a regular basis could be the characteristic that allows the right contender to draw lines of real distinction not just from Bush but from more cautious Democrats.
Democratic presidential candidates were handed a dream audience of 1,000 "ready-for-action" labor, civil rights, peace and economic justice campaigners at the Take Back America conference organized in Washington last week by the Campaign for America's Future. And the 2004 contenders grabbed for it, delivering some of the better speeches of a campaign that remains rhetorically -- and directionally -- challenged. But it was a non-candidate who won the hearts and minds of the crowd with a "Cross of Gold" speech for the 21st century.
Recalling the populism and old-school progressivism of the era in which William Jennings Bryan stirred the Democratic National Convention of 1896 to enter into the great struggle between privilege and democracy -- and to spontaneously nominate the young Nebraskan for president -- journalist and former presidential aide Bill Moyers delivered a call to arms against "government of, by and for the ruling corporate class."
Condemning "the unholy alliance between government and wealth" and the compassionate conservative spin that tries to make "the rape of America sound like a consensual date," Moyers charged that "rightwing wrecking crews" assembled by the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies were out to bankrupt government. Then, he said, they would privatize public services in order to enrich the corporate interests that fund campaigns and provide golden parachutes to pliable politicians. If unchecked, Moyers warned, the result of these machinations will be the dismantling of "every last brick of the social contract."
"I think this is a deliberate, intentional destruction of the United States of America," said Moyers, as he called for the progressives gathered in Washington -- and for their allies across the United States -- to organize not merely in defense of social and economic justice but in order to preserve democracy itself. Paraphrasing the words of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president rallied the nation to battle against slavery, Moyers declared, "our nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it could survive half slave and half free."
There was little doubt that the crowd of activists from across the country would have nominated Moyers by acclamation when he finished a remarkable address in which he challenged not just the policies of the Bush Administration but the failures of Democratic leaders in Congress to effectively challenge the president and his minions. In the face of what he described as "a radical assault" on American values by those who seek to redistribute wealth upward from the many to a wealthy few, Moyers said he could not understand why "the Democrats are afraid to be branded class warriors in a war the other side started and is winning."
Several of the Democratic presidential contenders who addressed the crowd after Moyers picked up pieces of his argument. Former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun actually quoted William Jennings Bryan, while North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry tried -- with about as much success as Al Gore in 2000 -- to sound populist. Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt promised not to be "Bush-lite," and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean drew warm applause when he said the way for Democrats to get elected "is not to be like Republicans, but to stand up against them and fight." Ultimately, however, only the Rev. Al Sharpton and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich came close to matching the fury and the passion of the crowd.
Kucinich, who earned nine standing ovations for his antiwar and anti-corporate free trade rhetoric, probably did more to advance his candidacy than any of the other contenders. But he never got to the place Moyers reached with a speech that legal scholar Jamie Raskin described as one of the most "amazing and spellbinding" addresses he had ever heard. Author and activist Frances Moore Lappe said she was close to tears as she thanked Moyers for providing precisely the mixture of perspective and hope that progressives need as they prepare to challenge the right in 2004.
That, Moyers explained, was the point of his address, which reflected on White House political czar Karl Rove's oft-stated admiration for Mark Hanna, the Ohio political boss who managed the campaigns and the presidency of conservative Republican William McKinley. It was McKinley who beat Bryan in 1896 and -- with Hanna's help -- fashioned a White House that served the interests of the corporate trusts.
Comparing the excesses of Hanna and Rove, and McKinley and Bush, Moyers said "the social dislocations and the meanness" of the 19th century were being renewed by a new generation of politicians who, like their predecessors, seek to strangle the spirit of the American revolution "in the hard grip of the ruling class."
To break that grip, Moyers said, progressives of today must learn from the revolutionaries and reformers of old. Recalling the progressive movement that rose up in the first years of the 20th century to preserve a "balance between wealth and commonwealth," and the successes of the New Dealers who turned progressive ideals into national policy, Moyers told the crowd to "get back in the fight." "Hear me!" he cried. "Allow yourself that conceit to believe that the flame of democracy will never go out as long as there is one candle in your hand."
While others were campaigning last week, Moyers was tending the flame of democracy. In doing so, he unwittingly made himself the candle holder-in-chief for those who seek to spark a new progressive era.
Monday's 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to remove barriers to corporate consolidation of control over the media capped a process that, even by the standards of George W. Bush's Washington, bent the rules to serve the special interests.
But the special interests and their allies in the FCC majority may finally have bent those rules to the breaking point. Indeed, even as he objected to Monday's decision, dissenting Commissioner Michael Copps said, "The obscurity of this issue that many have relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood this issue, is gone forever."
There is no question that, for the first time in recent American history, media has become a political issue. And, perhaps as significantly, the scandalous way in which the FCC does business has been exposed. "If ever we needed an example of what is wrong with the way in which the FCC handles issues of media ownership, the fight over these rule changes provides it," says US Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the leading critic of media consolidation in Congress. "We have seen that, at the FCC, the regulators do not regulate the industry. It's the opposite: The industry regulates the regulators. And that has to change."
In addition to provoking passionate opposition from civil rights, consumer, labor, religious and community groups across the country, this spring's debate over the six sweeping changes in media ownership regulations drew more scrutiny of the FCC than had ever before been seen. And that attention has revealed an agency where corporations that are supposed to be regulated enjoy extraordinary access to the regulators – and the favorable treatment that extends from that access.
The FCC majority went to such extremes in assuring a result that would satisfy the demands of the nation's most powerful media corporations that the two dissenting commissioners took the rare step of criticizing the majority for producing what Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein referred to as an "outcome-driven political document."
"When this full document is finally made public, I expect it will be torn apart by media experts, academics, consumer groups, activists, and most of all, the American people," explained Adelstein. "They will find it riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, false assumptions and outcome-driven thinking."
In a city where political discourse is still tempered at most turns by cautious and false politeness, Adelstein was refreshingly blunt Monday as he stated the reasons for his dissent. While noting the overwhelming opposition to the rule changes expressed by consumer, labor, religious, civil rights, journalism and academic groups, the commissioner focused in particular on the concerns stated by the more than 750,000 citizens who personally contacted the FCC to signal their fears about media consolidation and monopoly. Speaking of the American people, Adelstein said, "Today's decision overrides their better judgment. It instead relies on the reasoning of a handful of powerful media companies who have a vested financial interest. Those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves won out over the public."
How did "those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves" win out?
In the weeks before Monday's vote, the Center for Public Integrity detailed the cozy relationship between the FCC majority, key staffers and the industries they are supposed to police.
Last month, the Center revealed that FCC commissioners and staffers have taken more than 2,500 junkets – at a cost of almost $2.8 million -- that were paid for by the interests they are supposed to police. And it came as no surprise to anyone that FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the primary proponent of the six rule changes, was among the chief recipients of the first-class flights, luxury hotel suites and other favors that the media giants used to influence the decision-making process. Assessing the study's findings, Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis said, "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."
The idea grew even more laughable on the eve of Monday's vote, as the same Washington-based public interest research center revealed that, over the past eight months, owners and lobbyists for the country's largest broadcasting conglomerates met behind closed doors with FCC officials 71 times to discuss the rule changes that would allow big media to get dramatically bigger.
While the media conglomerates that favor the relaxing of ownership rules continue to claim that they are in competition with one another, the Center for Public Integrity study revealed that, "At some of the sessions (with commissioners and FCC staffers) executives from the nation's top broadcasters, such as News Corp./Fox, General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC, teamed together to lobby for the proposed changes."
In a measure of how seriously the broadcast conglomerates took the proposed rule changes – which were designed to make it dramatically easier for a single company to control most of the media in one city, while also permitting national networks to buy up more local stations -- the most powerful men in global media trekked to the FCC building for the closed door meetings. "Media moguls Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns Fox, and Mel Karmazin of Viacom, which owns CBS, virtually dashed from one FCC office to another for a series of private meetings with commissioners and top staff in late January and early February, as the agency was crafting the controversial proposals," explained the Center's Bob Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.
Karmazin and other Viacom officials and lobbyists met 45 times with the FCC commissioners and staffers, while News Corp. officials joined in 25 such closed-door meetings. Representatives of broadcast powerhouses such as ABC, NBC, Disney and Clear Channel, and newspaper chains such as Gannett, Cox and Hearst gathered separately and together for the 71 private meetings with the FCC.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these closed-to-the-public sessions were held with FCC commissioners and staffers who were viewed as being friendly to the corporations, and supportive of the rule changes that have been proposed. FCC Chairman Powell and his legal advisor Susan Eid, met privately with both News Corp.'s Murdoch and Viacom's Karmazin. Powell, his chief of staff Marsha MacBride, and Eid also met with NBC executives; while Powell and MacBride huddled with Gannett's representatives.
In all, Powell, Eid, MacBride and Ken Ferree, the FCC Media Bureau Chief who is considered to be the prime architect of the ownership rule changes, participated in at least 35 closed-door sessions with executives of major media conglomerates and their minions.
Powell and the two other Republican commissioners, who also met frequently with industry representatives, on Monday formed the 3-2 majority to endorse the ownership rule changes pushed by big media.
At the same time that Powell was meeting privately with the corporate chieftains, he was avoiding public hearings organized by Copps and Adelstein, the two Democratic FCC commissioners who tried unsuccessfully to open up decision-making process about rule changes that Copps says "will recast our entire media landscape for years to come."
"Good, sustainable rules are the result of an open administrative process and a serious attempt to gather all the relevant facts," Copps said Monday. "Bad rules and legal vulnerability result from an opaque regulatory process and inadequate data. Unfortunately, today's rules fall into the latter camp."
In his dissent, Copps focused on the failure of the Commission's majority to adequately consider public opinion -- or the public interest.
"I am concerned that this proceeding has been run as a classic inside-the-Beltway process with too little outreach from the Commission and too little opportunity for public participation in this far-reaching review of critical media concentration protections," said Copps. "This is the way the Commission usually does business, we are told. Well, I submit this is too important to be treated on a business-as-usual basis."
The triumph of the inside-the-Beltway approach was evident in the refusal of FCC Chairman Powell to schedule a sufficient number of public hearings, or to attend hearings arranged by others. "Proceeding on an assumption that all expertise does not reside within the Beltway, I sought to have the Commission hold a series of forums and roundtables around the country that would include significant input from both traditional and non-traditional stakeholders," recalled Copps. "After an initial flat denial we were given only one official hearing, and it was less than 100 miles outside the Beltway in Richmond, Virginia."
After the February session in Richmond, Powell refused at least twelve invitations to participate in semiofficial hearings at which Copps and Adelstein were present. Powell, who jetted across this country this spring to stay in the luxury suites provided by the corporations that were lobbying for the rule changes, said he was too busy to make it to those public sessions.
Powell would not go to the public, and he and his aides also declined to afford equal access to groups advocating the public interest. According to Williams, "The 71 meetings FCC officials have held with top broadcasters were in stark contrast to the number of private sessions with Consumers Union and the Media Access Project, the two major consumer groups working on the issue. Those two groups have had only five such sessions with commissioners and other agency officials since the proposals first surfaced eight months ago."
In his dissent, Copps recounted how he was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to gather more public comment, encourage adequate research on the potential impact of the rule changes and, ultimately, to delay Powell's rush to close the debate with Monday's vote.
"When a draft proposal, not including the proposed text of the new rules themselves, was circulated to Commissioners a mere three weeks before today's vote, we formally requested that the Commission postpone today's meeting to provide additional time to study more thoroughly the impact of the proposals and their interplay, and to see if common ground could be found," Copps complained. "Under long-standing Commission practices, such requests from Commissioners have generally been honored. That request was also denied."
There is no question that the denial of public input and the public interest are disappointing, even scandalous. But in disappointment and anger at scandalous behavior, there can be strength. Because Congress has the power to intervene to restore media ownership rules gutted Monday by the FCC -- and with members as divergent in their views as North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan and Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott indicating that they want to act on the issue -- an angry public might yet be heard.
As Copps said in his statement of dissent Monday, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant.American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."
Just as Congress has the power to reverse the worst of the FCC's decisions, so Congress has the power to police the policeman. The complaints of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, the revelations from the Center for Public Integrity and the public outcry over Monday's decision make the case for a dramatic change in how the FCC does business. Indeed, says Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders, "We now have two outrageous situations that need to be addressed by Congress: the new media ownership rules and the way in which those rules were made. The incestuous relationships between regulators and the industries they are supposed to regulate have been exposed. The situation is so outrageous that I think the American people are going to tell Congress: This has to be addressed."
With the June 2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission on a series of rule changes that would dramatically reshape the nation's media landscape rapidly approaching, it is abundantly clear that honest players in the debate have determined that making the changes would spell disaster for democratic discourse, cultural diversity and the public interest that the FCC is supposed to defend.
More than 100 members of Congress – ranging from Congressional Progressive Caucus stalwarts such as Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Ohio's Sherrod Brown to Congressional Black Caucus veterans such as Michigan's John Conyers and New York's Charles Rangel to Republican moderates such as Maine U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as diehard conservatives such as U.S. Senators Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and Wayne Allard, R-Colorado –have objected to the FCC's rush to eliminate rules that protect against media monopoly and corporate consolidation. Leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the National Council of La Raza, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and dozens of other public interest groups have signed letters demanding that the FCC seek more public comment before making decisions that they argue "could have a sweeping impact on what news and information Americans see and hear in the future." The Newspaper Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcasting Employees and Technicians, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, the American Federation of Musicians and the Future of Music Coalition have all warned that making the changes could undermine American journalism and culture. Close to 300 leading academics have come forward to say that the FCC is moving too quickly and without legitimate scholarship on these crucial rulemaking decisions. Rockers Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and Patti Smith have joined the chorus of concern, along with conservative columnist William Safire and the National Rifle Association, and the city councils of Chicago and Seattle, the Vermont House of Representatives. And public comments to the FCC have been running 20-1 against making changes that would allow the nation's largest media companies to control virtually all television, radio and newspaper communications in American communities.
Against such overwhelming opposition, what could it be that is driving the FCC to press forward with the June 2 vote? The answer may be found in a blockbuster report just released by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, which details how industry groups the FCC is supposed to be regulating have over the past eight years paid for more than 2,500 junkets taken by key FCC officials.
The examination of FCC travel records by analysts with the Center for Public Integrity reveals that FCC commissioners and top staffers have been flown to hundreds of conferences, conventions and broadcast-industry events in Las Vegas (330 trips), New Orleans (173 trips), New York (102 trips), London (98 trips), as well as San Francisco, Miami, Anchorage, Palm Springs, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Beijing and Paris. Often, according to the study, the FCC aides merely attend events as observers – but they do so in style, spending the night in elite accommodations such as the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and at the resorts of Amelia Island, Florida, and Hilton Head, South Carolina.
This sort of high-flying junketeering costs a lot of money. But money, it seems, is no object when media conglomerates and their lobbying arms are wining and dining the people who regulate the scope – and potential profitability –- of their empires.
Over the past eight years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, FCC commissioners and staffers have taken almost $2.8 million in trips that were paid for by the interests they are supposed to police. Companies with big business before the FCC this spring, such as Viacom and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., have paid for trips. So too have lobbying groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters ($191,472 for junkets by 206 FCC officials) and the The National Cable and Telecommunications Association ($172,635 for junkets by 125 FCC officials). While some of these groups and companies may disagree on particular points, the bottom line, Media Access Project president Andy Schwartzman told the Center for Public Integrity researchers, is that the firms and interest groups that pay for this travel can all buy "access" and "personal face time" with the men and women who set the rules that media concerns must live by. In contrast, explained Schwartzman, "It's impossible for the public to get the same kind of access with those officials."
So who do media concerns buy access to when they pay for trips? FCC chairman Michael Powell, the most aggressive proponent of the media ownership rule changes that will be considered June 2, had 44 junkets, costing almost $85,000, paid for by interests he is supposed to regulate. No other commissioner ran up travel bills in excess of $20,000, but several of Powell's chief aides did. Running up travel expenses in excess of those of any commissioner other than Powell were the chairman's legal advisor, Susan Eid (15 trips at a cost of $17,368.95) and FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree (19 trips at a cost of $23,503.60).
While FCC officials defend the junkets, offering arguments like that of Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who issued a statement saying that accepting the expense-paid travel opportunities "serves a crucial information-gathering purpose that is necessary to effective decisionmaking."
But Consumer Federation of America research director Marc Cooper, one of the savviest observers of media policy making in the U.S., argues that, "It is silly to say they [FCC officials] don't lose some of their objectivity when they are being wined and dined like they are at these industry events."
Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis is blunter. Assessing the study's findings, he said, "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."
How cozy a relationship can all-expense-paid junkets to international hotspots buy?
One indicator may be found in a study by the Center for Public Integrity's data gathering initiative, that details how the FCC – which receives millions of dollars in federal funding to conduct authoritative research that supposedly allows it to serve the public interest – frequently relies on information from the private sector.
This study, according to the Center's researchers, revealed that:
"(The) FCC's reliance on non-government private data is so ingrained that when public interest groups asked for access to data underlying a series of media ownership reports last fall, the FCC relented only after issuing a quasi-judicial 'protective order' meant to keep the information secret."
"When the Center was constructing its database of media companies, researchers and reporters were repeatedly referred by FCC staff to private companies for basic information on ownership, audience reach and cable subscribers. Getting market share information, which is key when reviewing whether broadcasters are within existing FCC limits, was all but impossible without going outside the agency."
In other words, FCC officials who let the industries they regulate pay for their junkets are also willing to let the private-sector provide the make-or-break "research" on which the commision will decide what is in the public interest.
"The report is astonishing," says Lewis, "because it reveals more than ever before just how incestuous the relationship is between the Federal Communications Commission and the broadcasting and cable industries it is supposed to regulate."
(The Center for Public Integrity's studies are available on the web at www.openairwaves.org. In addition, the Center has developed several searchable databases designed to allow Americans to learn more about media consolidation in their hometowns. These databases can be accessed at: www.openairwaves.org/telecom/analysis/default.aspx.)
The Department of Homeland Security's Air and Marine Interdiction Division (AMID) says its mission is to "Protect the Nation's borders and the American people from the smuggling of narcotics and other contraband with an integrated and coordinated air and marine interdiction force."
So it is easy to understand why Texans were scratching their heads when they learned that the division's Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center in Riverside, California, played a critical role in tracking down the Democratic legislators who went missing from the Texas Capitol this week.
The revelation that the federal anti-terrorism agency joined the Republican-sponsored hunt for the Texas legislators has sparked a fury in Austin and in Washington. While the Texas Democratic Party is calling for an accounting of all the state and federal resources employed in the partisan dragnet, Congressional Democrats in Washington are demanding to know how and why a Department of Homeland Security tracking center in California was pulled into the service of the Republican leadership in the Texas State House.
The federal angle is the latest twist in the bizarre saga of Republican abuse of power and Democratic counter moves in Texas.
The story of the absent legislators is big news, not just in Texas but in Washington. US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was furious with the Democrats, whose absence will prevent enactment of a redistricting plan DeLay had crafted to increase the number of Texas congressional districts likely to elect Republicans from 15 to 19. The legally-dubious gerrymandering scheme has been a top priority of DeLay; the powerful Republican leader admits he has even discussed it with President Bush, a former Texas governor, who reportedly told DeLay, "I'd like to see that happen." As it became increasingly clear that DeLay would not get his way -- the absence of the Democratic legislators has denied the Texas Republican leaders the quorum needed to approve the redistricting plan before a Thursday deadline -- he blew up. The man politicos refer to as "The Hammer" was so angry that he speculated on Tuesday about whether federal law might allow FBI agents to travel to the Oklahoma hotel where 51 Democrats were staying, arrest the lawmakers and return them to Austin before the deadline. U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said it appeared that Republican leaders were trying to make federal law enforcement agencies "Tom DeLay's personal police force."
DeLay's dream was not to be, however. When Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, DeLay's man in Austin, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the US Marshall Service to do the GOP's bidding, the offical response was "no." US Department of Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez told reporters that responsibility for tracking down the legislators "falls squarely within the purview of state authority, and it would not warrant investigation by federal authorities."
But, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the federal Air and Marine Interdiction Division did get involved in the investigation. The division, a combination of old Customs Department agencies that now operates under the jurisdiction of the Bush Administration's Homeland Security Department, has long used its California facility to monitor efforts to illegally enter the United States via the skies or waterways. The Star-Telegram reports that, after the Texas Democratic legislators went missing early this week, "The agency got a call, it's unclear exactly from when or from whom, to locate a certain Piper Turbo-Prop aircraft."
The Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center in Riverside reportedly tracked the aircraft in question -- which belongs to former House Speaker Pete Laney, one of the departed Democrats -- to Ardmore, Oklahoma.
When questioned, Republican Tom Craddick admitted that the information about the plane's location was critical to solving the mystery of where the Democrats had disappeared to. "We called someone and they said they were going to track it," Craddick said of the plane. "That's how we found them."
As it turned out, Oklahoma authorities laughed off attempts by the Texas Department of Public Safety to extend their authority across the state line. So knowing where the Democrats were sleeping was of little consequence.
But the nagging question of how the Department of Homeland Security got pulled into the investigation lingers. Craddick won't say who it was that promised to track Pete Laney's place. And the usually precise Tom DeLay goes a little vague when it comes to answering questions about his meddling in state and federal affairs.
That hasn't stopped Texans from asking questions, however. "I thought the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to be busy monitoring terrorist threats -- especially external terrorist threats," says Sarah Wheat, a Texas abortion rights activist who, like many Texans, says she is glad the Democrats went AWOL. "The only threat the Democratic legislators pose is to Tom DeLay's political agenda and a whole bunch of bad bills."
Texas representatives in Washington from trying to get to the bottom of what appears to be a serious abuse of federal power. U.S. House members from Texas have written U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller, demanding details regarding federal involvement in the search and seeking an investigation of DeLay's efforts to enlist federal help in the search for the Texas legislators.
U.S. Representative Martin Frost, D-Texas, expressed his outrage by making a historical comparison, explaining that, "Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate 30 years ago has there been an effort to involve federal law enforcement officials in a partisan political matter."
LONDON - Frustrated by the failure of US-based broadcast networks to provide a realistic account of the political machinations that led to the Iraq war, millions of Americans tuned in British news reports - which were picked up on public broadcasting and community radio, the internet and television stations.
Already high American audience figures for BBC World News bulletins spiked by 28 percent in the first weeks of the war, and BBC officials delighted in e-mails like the one from a New York viewer who wrote, "The BBC seems to be the only decent source of news on this conflict. American networks are appalling."
While Americans expressed admiration for the BBC's straight take on the news, British viewers who caught reports from US broadcast and cable networks have been shocked by the bias that permeates coverage of the Bush Administration and its military adventurism abroad. The general director of the BBC bemoaned the "gung ho" coverage of the US networks while a veteran British Cabinet minister dismissed US news coverage of the war as "old-fashioned propaganda."
"What the US networks give you is just a rehash of Bush Administration announcements, and worse. There's no news in it," says Tony Benn, one of the best-known political figures in Britain and a frequent commentator on international news programs. "Does anyone take them seriously?"
While Britain's many press critics found plenty to object to about BBC coverage of the war, the network got high marks from most for asking tough questions about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's alliance with George W. Bush, the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the governance of cities captured by the so-called "coalition of the willing."
In contrast, American networks dismissed dissent, openly questioned the intellect and patriotism of those who questioned Secretary of State Colin Powell's "evidence" regarding Iraqi weapons of mas destruction and degenerated into rah-rah coverage of presidential pronouncements once the war began.
So embarrassing was the US coverage of the war - and so conscious was the rest of the world of the collapse of basic journalistic standards - that BBC director general Greg Dyke found it necessary to promise that, "In the area of impartiality, as in many other areas, we must ensure that we don't become Americanized."
Dyke, who is generally seen as an ally of Blair, admitted that he was "shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during the war." He added that, while in the US, he was "amazed by how many people just came up to me and said they were following the war on the BBC because they no longer trusted the American electronic news media."
Sincere criticism from abroad - along with the unprecedented abandonment of US news outlets for foreign sources - ought to make this a point at which US journalists, regulators, politicians and citizens pause to reflect on whether too few owners are running too much media in too greedy and irresponsible a manner.
Instead, with a strong push from the Bush White House, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell is moving to enact ownership rule changes that will allow big media companies to get dramatically bigger. Promising the Newspaper Association of America convention last month that the FCC would eliminate the 1975 rule that prevents owners of newspapers from buying up radio and television stations in the towns where they publish, Powell told the newspaper executives, "We have finally taken this by the reins."
If Powell and the other commissioners pull those reins tight and enact the proposed rule changes - a step the chairman wants the FCC to take by June 2 - the vast majority of American newspapers could become as vapid and unquestioning as American television and radio. If that happens, Americans who want to know what is going on in the world will have to import British newspapers to read while listening to their morning BBC reports.
GLASGOW -- The red shirts worn by activists with the Scottish Socialist Party featured the phrase "Axis of Evil," a reference to President Bush's identification of nations that were on the wrong side of his "with-us-or-against-us" equation. In parentheses next to the phrase was the word "revised" and beneath it were outlines of Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Glasgow Kelvin parliamentary constituency.
"We did not want any confusion. We're not with Bush. We're not with Blair. And we were not for their war," said Andy McPake, a Glasgow University student who wore the red shirt and a yellow "Vote SSP -- Stop the War" sticker on the night of May 1, as he watched votes being counted in elections for the Scottish Parliament.
Though the elections for the separate parliament that serves Scotland were about more than just the war that played out during the course of this year's campaign, a good many Scots shared McPake's view that the balloting offered an opportunity to send Blair and Bush a message. Polling before the election suggested that a substantial number of traditional Labour Party voters would bolt because of their anger over Blair's prowar stance, and that appears to be precisely what happened. The militantly antiwar SSP, whose leader Tommy Sheridan appeared frequently at antiwar rallies throughout the campaign and continued to wear a "No More Wars" pin even after the fighting in Iraq slackened, had held a single seat in the previous parliament. On May 1, the SSP won six seats. The Greens, who shared the antiwar stance if not the radical passions of the SSP activists, won seven seats. And independents who expressed anti-war sentiments took several more positions.
Blair's Labour Party, which has long been the dominant political force in Scotland, retained the largest bloc of parliamentary seats. But the party's majority was significantly reduced in what newspaper headlines described as "A shock to the system" and "People Power on the March." Far from gaining a "war bounce" as a result of Blair's lonely alliance with Bush, Labour suffered a setback in Scotland. And many local observers were blunt about the role that the support that Blair and other Labour Party leaders gave to Bush's war. "The public has expressed its verdict on a failed party (Labour) that was willing to find billions to fight an illegal war in Iraq while failing to find funding that would ensure that old people won't have to choose between heating their home or eating this winter."
The parliamentary elections in Scotland formed one part of the first political test for a member of Bush's "coalition of the willing." Blair's Labour party also battled on May 1 to maintain its control over local governments across Britain. There too, Labour suffered serious setbacks. The party's percentage of the vote fell from 41 percent in the 2001 general election to just 30 percent in the May 1 voting. Labour lost more than 800 seats on the local councils that govern British cities and regions. Most of those seats went to the traditional opposition party, the Conservatives, but a substantial number went to the Liberal Democrats, a third party that was highly critical of Blair's alliance with Bush before the war.
Across Britain, the Liberal Democrats had their best performance in decades -- tying Labour's 30 percent of the vote. And in cities such as Birmingham and Leicester, which are home to large Muslim populations, the Liberal Democrats swept past Labour. Mohammad Naseem, the chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque explained the dramatic shift of Muslim voters away from Labour by saying simply, "They were against the Labour Party policies over the war." The Greens also won a number of seats that had been held by Labour.
As in Scotland, the local government elections in Britain revolved around many issues. But Britain's Independent newspaper noted in a weekend editorial that, "Labour's performance, picking up 30 percent of the vote, seemed to suffer from an anti-war backlash. It did badly in areas with large numbers of Muslim voters, notably losing control of Birmingham. In years to come we may look back on the war as a turning point in Labour's relations with Muslim Britons." Though somewhat less easily measured, the newspaper argued that the May 1 vote also pointed to another hard break for Labour: "the loss of votes among the liberal middle classes and the effects of the demoralization of party activists by the war in Iraq."
Don't go looking for the compact discs of country singer Toby Keith and jazz player Ellis Marsalis, Jr., in the same section of a music megastore. Don't expect to find a concert venue where downtown poet Patti Smith will share the stage with uptown pianoman Billy Joel. And don't even imagine that you will be able to tune in that magic radio frequency where Neil Diamond's croons, Pearl Jam's rocks and Van Dyke Parks explore the musical byways of Americana.
An examination of the CD collections of most Americans will still reveal the sort of diverse tastes that find room for the acoustic folk rock of the Indigo Girls, the alternative rock of Michael Stipe and REM, and the classic rock of Don Henley and the Eagles. But an increasingly corporate and commercial media rejects this very American penchant for diversity in favor of tightly formatted radio stations, lowest-common-denominator marketing strategies and the sort of homogenized and sanitized music that sounds as if it was created by a poll or a focus group -- as opposed to an artist.
Musicians of all stripes are starting to recognize that the galloping consolidation of American media -- especially in radio, where most Americans were first introduced to their favorite songs -- has reduced the ability of recording artists to take the risks that reshape our consciousness, to explore new ideas and new sounds and, ultimately, to be heard. Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed barriers to the number of radio stations one media conglomerate could own, the largest of these conglomerates -- Texas-based Clear Channel -- has grabbed more than 1,200 stations and shaped a musical mix characterized by the homogenization of playlists, the death of programming diversity, less local programming, reduced public access to the airwaves and rapidly declining public satisfaction with radio and the music it plays.
"There are clear lessons from the dramatic consolidation of ownership in the radio industry following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and how it has impacted the historic goals of localism, competition and diversity," says Ann Chaitovitz, Director of Sound Recordings at The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). And the lessons are not good for American music or American musicians.
That's why now, as the five members of the Federal Communications Commission consider a series of rule changes that would open the door to more consolidation, commercialism, corporatism and corruption, Keith, Marsalis, Smith, Joel, Diamond, Stipe, Henley, Parks, Pearl Jam and the Indigo Girls have joined two dozen other prominent artists to sign a letter that asks the FCC to halt the rush to enact six major rules changes by early June.
The musicians are urging FCC chair Michael Powell to provide Congress and citizens a full opportunity to review proposed changes of media ownership rules before they are enacted. In addition, they make the case that basic rules to control against monopolies, hyper-commercialism and the loss of local content are both needed and broadly supported by Americans. "We believe the record demonstrates both the value of existing media ownership rules and the dangers in permitting widespread consolidation of ownership," the letter declares. "We also believe the FCC has been negligent in listening to important stakeholder groups, like musicians, recording artists and radio professionals, to ensure their testimony is on the record."
The letter from some of the best-known musicians in the U.S. is the latest sign of the broad opposition that rule changes being considered by the FCC -- which would allow one company to own newspapers, television and radio in the same town, and which would allow more consolidation of media ownership on the local and national levels.
"The Commission is considering possible changes to broadcast ownership rules which were put in place by Congress to ensure that the public would have access to a wide range of news, information, and programming, as well as diverse political views. Repeal or significant modification of these rules would likely open the door to numerous mergers that could reduce competition and diversity in the media. A final rule, significantly altering media ownership limits, could have serious ramifications for robust public debate and the marketplace of ideas," read a recent letter from leaders of Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other groups that urged Powell to open up the process. "The mass media provide Americans the information and news they need to participate fully in our democratic society. If media ownership rules are seriously weakened, one company in a town could control the most popular newspaper, TV station, and possibly even a cable system giving it dominant influence over the content and slant of local news. Such a move would reduce the diversity of cultural and political discussion in a community."
Musicians are especially worried about the loss of cultural diversity -- and the practical impact it has on their ability to reach audiences that were once available to them. "As artists, we recognize the important role that radio and other media play in the vitality of the American culture," says Henley. "It is outrageous that many citizens are not even aware these changes are being debated. To a large extent, this is because the FCC leadership has not fully engaged the public. But what frightens me more is the complete absence of any network coverage of this issue. The broadcast interests who clearly stand to benefit from further consolidation have seemingly absolved themselves of their responsibility to cover this proceeding as a news story. If this is the sort of biased coverage we get now I can't imagine what will pass as journalism in the next phase of our increasingly consolidated media future."
Among the other musicians joining Henley in signing the letter are Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, Tim McGraw, Joan Osborne, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Jennifer Warnes, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Fleerwood Mac's Stevie Nicks, and Ray Manzarek of Doors fame.
Army Secretary Thomas White, the Enron executive who parlayed his skills at running private companies into bankruptcy into an important-sounding position in the Bush Administration, has stepped down. The official administration spin -- which was only slightly less credible than a press briefing from the former Iraqi Information Minister -- claimed that White quit. The reality was that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who thought of White as little more than a lobbyist for defense contractors promoting unnecessary investment in cumbersome weapons such as the canceled Crusader artillery system, fired the Army Secretary.
No one should mourn White's departure. His presence in the administration was Exhibit A for the case that the Bush team had bartered off positions of authority to hacks who saw government "service" as a means to enrich their corporate comrades -- and, ultimately, themselves.
There is one reason to hold back on celebrating White's departure, however. The primary effect of his exit will be to solidify Rumsfeld's control over all of the country's military affairs. With White out, and with the coming retirement of General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff with whom Rumsfeld and his aides clashed, the Defense Secretary will be well positioned to nominate loyalists for the Army's top civilian position and the senior military slot.
For those who worry that Rumsfeld might be just a bit too full of himself, the notion of a Defense Secretary surrounded by yes-men should be a sobering one.