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The American people have already changed the character of the debate over media consolidation and monopoly. Now, they may well be on the verge of winning a historically unprecedented victory in Congress. Many thought the FCC's 3-2 vote on June 2 permitting media conglomerates to own more TV stations in every market and nationally, as well as permitting the same firm to own multiple TV stations, the daily newspaper, and multiple radio stations in the same community -- the dreaded cross-ownership -- settled the matter.
Now it appears dissenting FCC members Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein hit the nail on the head when they said the June 2 vote was so deeply absurd and corrupt -- it was payback time for the huge media conglomerates that traditionally have their way with regulators -- that it would provoke an onslaught of public outrage that would not recede until the FCC's changes were overturned.
How much public outrage? It is arguable that more Americans want to see Osama bin Laden's bust enshrined on Mount Rushmore than wish to allow fewer and fewer media companies the right to gobble up what remains of our media system.
An absurd statement, you say? Well consider this. When FCC Chairman Michael Powell refused to hold more than one official public hearing on whether to relax media ownership rules this winter and spring, he urged Americans to send him, the other commissioners, and members of Congress their thoughts via post, telephone and email. According to the FCC's Adelstein nearly two million people have done so. And by the FCC's own calculations, over 99.9 percent of these citizens demand that the FCC keep the existing media ownership rules, or tighten them.
Congress got the message that Powell and his fellow Republican pranksters on the FCC somehow missed as they were polishing off their resumes for their post-FCC careers in industry. In three Senate Commerce committee hearings chaired by John McCain (Rep., AZ) since June 2, the FCC has been attacked mercilessly and most of the rules overturned. Now there is legislation in both the Senate and the House to throw out what the FCC hath wrought. Senator Byron Dorgan (De., N.D.) is considering using the Congressional Review Act to have the Senate toss out the FCC's rules relaxation.
As we go to press, the situation is white hot on Capitol Hill, and may well be settled before the end of July. The corporate media lobbies have been reduced to depending on a few tried and true corrupt leaders, most notably Billy Tauzin and Tom DeLay, to carry their water. Even Karl Rove and the Bush administration, which absolutely adores letting Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation own more media, are keeping a low public profile on this topic, because they know that with leading independent media owners, the NRA, William Safire, and the much of the Christian right opposing the FCC -- heck, as we said, just about everyone -- this is political dynamite.
And that is why the people may well win this one. What is crucial is for Americans to flood their members of Congress with telephone calls, letters and emails in the next two weeks telling them to junk the FCC media rules changes. For easily accessible information on how to do that, go to www.mediareform.net/stopthefcc. If supportive members hear from enough people, it will strengthen their backbones; if those on the other side hear from many people, too, it may help them change their minds or at least that it is not worth sacrificing their political careers to enhance Mel Karmazin's and Rupert Murdoch's net worth.
ACTIVIST NOTE:Call your Congressional representatives and demand that they support a rollback of the FCC decision. One phone call from a constituent is more effective than scores of email petitions.
Click here and follow the easy steps for more information.(Don't worry, you don't need to know your Senators' or Rep's names, only your zipcode.)
With Robert W. McChesney
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's scored another publicity coup this week, finishing a solid first in the MoveOn.org PAC online primary that became a high-stakes test of the appeal of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Dean won 139,360 votes, almost 44 percent of those cast in voting Wednesday and Thursday by members of the progressive online activist network. Dean was expected to run well in the voting, which took place the week of his official announcement of candidacy and that was played to his strengths among younger, more web-savvy Democrats. Dean backers focused a good deal of energy on the virtual primary, dispatching tens of thousands of emails urging supporters to register at the site and vote for the increasingly high-profile candidate.
"On Monday, I stood in Burlington, Vermont and said that my campaign -- our campaign -- was built on 'mouse pads, shoe leather, and hope.' Today, we see just how far that combination can go: We have won the Moveon.org primary by a landslide," Dean said while campaigning in California Friday.
But Dean did not score the 50 percent of the vote needed to secure a coveted endorsement from the MoveOn.org PAC. MoveOn.org PAC helped raise more than $4 million in online contributions for progressive candidates in 2002, and has come to be seen as one of the most effective grassroots fund-raising vehicles on the left.
Dean's appeal to MoveOn members, who share many of the anti-war and socially progressive stances he has taken so far in the campaign, was blunted by the appeal of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has worked hard to identify himself as the most aggressively anti-war contender in the race. In the computer-driven campaigning before the vote, Kucinich backers sent thousands of emails urging MoveOn members to "Vote for the Genuine Peace Candidate," and their efforts appear to have had a significant impact on the process.
Though his candidacy has been largely ignored by major media outlets that have given considerable coverage to Dean and other "first-tier" contenders, Kucinich ran a solid second in the MoveOn voting, winning 76,000 votes for almost 24 percent of the total. "I don't think the media can continue to ignore Kucinich after this," said Lee Brown, co-chair of Kucinich's campaign in Wisconsin, which will hold a critical primary on February 17. "Even though Dennis Kucinich's campaign has gotten a lot less attention than the Dean campaign, people are getting the message. Kucinich is the real peace candidate, and the real progressive in this race."
Third-place went to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who is often portrayed as the frontrunner in the increasingly intense Democratic contest. Kerry's vote to authorize President Bush to use the military in Iraq put him at odds with the position of many MoveOn members, but he has scored points since with aggressive criticism of the administration's handling of international relations. The Massachusetts senator won 49,973 votes, or about 16 percent.
None of the other candidates got more than 3.5 percent of the vote in the virtual primary, which drew more voters – 317,639 members participated -- than the 2000 Iowa Democratic caucuses and New Hampshire Democratic primary. The top-three finishes by Dean, Kucinich and Kerry were expected, as they were the candidates who were allowed to make direct pitches to MoveOn members in the days before the voting. The trio were given that opportunity by MoveOn organizers after they a poll last month of members showed them to be the favorite contenders.
Backers of former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, made noise about pulling out of the competition, but decided in the end to remain in the running. Gephardt ended up in fifth place (2.4 percent), behind the top-three candidates and North Carolina Senator John Edwards (3.2 percent), but ahead of Florida Senator Bob Graham (2.2 percent) , former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun (2.2 percent), Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (1.9 percent) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (0.5 percent.) Retired General Wesley Clark, who was not on the ballot but who is pondering a candidacy, received almost 3,000 votes and close to 1 percent of the vote.
While MoveOn.org PAC will not endorse a candidate at this time, the online primary process saw 49,132 participants pledge $1.75 million in contributions to their favorite candidates. Some 54,730 participants pledged to volunteer for the candidate they supported, while 77,192 authorized MoveOn to pass on their e-mail address to their candidate.
"Participation far exceeded our expectations," said Wes Boyd, the treasurer of MoveOn.org PAC. "Our most important objectives have already been met: Early Democratic grassroots involvement; increased contributions and volunteer support for each campaign; and mobilization of the Democratic base to defeat George Bush."
The announcement this week by U.S. District Judge John S. Martin of the Southern District of New York that he would leave the bench because he was fed up with Congressional meddling in federal sentencing decisions highlights growing judicial resentment at the blurring of the separation of powers.
The founders of these United States established an independent federal judiciary with the intent that it would temper the excesses of the executive and legislative branches of government. In recent years, however, Congress has sought to restrict the ability of federal judges to make decisions based on law and reason.
Federal laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, for using a gun in relation to various drug or violent crimes, and for numerous other offenses. Judges have for a number of years argued that adhering to sentencing mandates limits their ability to employ legal knowledge and discretion in determining appropriate punishments for men and women who have been convicted of crimes.
Federal jurists have become increasing agitated over Congressional mandates regarding sentencing, which Supreme Court Justice David Souter says jurists fear will make them "instruments of injustice."
But Congress has continued to move in recent years to increase the injustice by forcing judges to accept mandatory minimum sentence but to strictly obey federal sentencing guidelines. While judges were departing from the sentencing guidelines only in about 18 percent of cases, conservatives in Congress this year attacking even that level of discretion. The House and Senate passed legislation dictating to federal judges what sentences must be imposed. That legislation was criticized by jurists and legal scholars as a dramatic erosion of the lines of separation between the branches of government; and as a power grab by Congress.
Even conservative jurists such as Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained, but the legislation passed and was signed April 30 by President Bush. That's when Martin says he made his decision to quit.
"Congress is mandating things simply because they want to show how tough they are on crime, with no sense of whether this makes sense or is meaningful," explained Martin, who said he particularly objects to the removal of judicial discretion in cases where non-violent criminals face harsh sentences if convicted.
Martin argued that adherence to strict sentencing guidelines has led to the packing of federal prisons with people -- such as low-level drug dealers -- who simply should not be serving sentences of 30, 40, 50 or more years.
"Sentences should be just. We shouldn't be putting everybody in jail for the rest of their life," the 68-year-old judge complained.
In an opinion column that appeared this week in The New York Times, Martin said he was concerned about pay scales for federal judgeships, which he noted are now lower than for second year associates in top law firms. But, he argued, "While I might have stayed on despite the inadequate pay, I no longer want to be part of our unjust criminal justice system."
Appointed to the federal judiciary in 1990 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Martin is one of many jurists from across the political spectrum who have objected to Congressional-mandated minumum sentences and to pressure to obey sentencing guidelines. A 1996 survey of more that 700 federal jurists by the Federal Judicial Center found that almost 70 percent of those questioned objected to mandatory sentencing.
The following year, in testimony before a U.S. House committee, two Supreme Court justices condemned mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes. "I do not think judges should have their sentencing discretion controlled by a mandatory sentence," declared Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "I don't not like mandatory sentences," he said. "I think they can lead to injustice."
One measure of that injustice is the fact that, according to 2000 testimony given by U.S. Sentencing Commission vice chair John Steer, before the House Governmental Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, African American defendants made up 30 percent of those subject to five-year mandatory sentences in 1999, 43 percent to 10-year mandatory sentences, 60 percent to 20-year mandatory sentences and 80 percent to mandatory life in prison. (To learn more about injustices resulting from mandatory minimum sentence rules and federal sentencing guidelines, and about judicial objections to Congressional pressure on the federal courts, check out the website of the national group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) at www.famm.org)
While Judge Martin is leaving the bench, other jurists who remain are also speaking up.
"As a consequence of the mandatory sentences, we (judges) know that justice is not always done," explains U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, of the District of Columbia. "(You) cannot dispense equal justice by playing a numbers game. Judgment and discretion and common sense are essential."
U.S. District Judge Spencer Letts, of the Central District of California, summed up judicial objections when he argued,"Statutory mandatory minimum sentences create injustice because the sentence is determined without looking at the particular defendant," says "It can make no difference whether he is a lifetime criminal or a first-time offender. Indeed, under this sledgehammer approach, it could make no difference if the day before making this one slip in an otherwise unblemished life the defendant had rescued 15 children from a burning building or had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while defending his country."
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.