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The Nation

The Next Big Fight Over Media Ownership

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

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

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

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

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

The House members wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Congress Is Shafting the Middle Class

In 2005, Congress failed the middle class.

This is the blunt assessment of the nonpartisan Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI), which today released its third annual scorecard, Congress at the Midterm: Their 2005 Middle-Class Record. Aimed at assessing Congress's voting records on issues of concern to the nation's middle class and "those who aspire to a middle-class standard of living"--surely the vast majority of Americans--Congress at the Midterm is a forceful indictment of Congress's performance and the party in power.

"In vote after vote," the scorecard notes, "Congress disdained the concerns of middle-class Americans and opted instead to favor the already wealthy and powerful: a surefire recipe for a shrinking middle class." From the passage of a bankruptcy bill that benefited credit card companies but squeezed middle-class families already overwhelmed by debt, to the failure of legislation to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in nearly a decade, to the House's vote to repeal the estate tax on the nation's most privileged heirs, the scorecard paints a grim, but devastatingly accurate, picture of what our elected representatives have been up to under the Capitol Dome.

First and foremost, the scorecard illustrates the utter failure of the Republican rank-and-file to support their middle-class constituents. Embattled incumbents like Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (who earns a zero grade for casting not a single pro-middle-class vote) resolutely voted against a bill to reject deep benefit cuts or a massive increase in debt in any Social Security "reform" plan. And he was far from alone: 99 percent of GOP House members failed the scorecard completely. 95 percent failed in the Senate. And only four Republicans--Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey--even manage to earn a mediocre "C" grade under the scorecard's generous scoring system.

While the party in power clearly comes out looking the worst, Democrats also fall in for their share of blame. Democratic backing for the middle class was very good when it came to things like increasing the minimum wage, saving Social Security and averting dangerous budget cuts, but the same strong level of support was not in evidence on bills like the Energy Policy Act, the Bankruptcy Abuse and Consumer Protection Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act--cases where, as DMI notes, "powerful industries lobbied for legislation that would increase their profits at the expense of the middle class." While there are nine scores of 100 percent among the Democratic Senators, and more among House members, 11 percent of Democratic representatives failed completely.

As we head into the 2006 elections, voters looking for a concise way to evaluate Congress on basic, bread-and-butter issues would do well to be armed with Congress at the Midterm: Their 2005 Middle-Class Record. And more of them than ever will find out about it. With DMI's pioneering embrace of Google AdWords, web surfers from around the country will be alerted to their Congress member's record whenever they do a Google search for their representative's name in the next month. A search for "Katherine Harris" for example, reveals a little blurb in the upper left-hand corner of the screen linking to the 2005 House record of the woman Florida voters are considering sending to the Senate.

A Crucial Vote

When John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold offer an amendment to the defense spending bill Wednesday calling on US troops to leave Iraq by July 1, 2007, only a handful of Senators voted with them.

If the American people had a say, the outcome would be different. A majority of the public supports setting a timetable for giving Iraq back to Iraqis. And the issue is particularly salient in Congressional districts in play this November.

MoveOn.org, with the help of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, recently surveyed voters in the country's top 68 swing districts, two-thirds held by Republicans.

By 50 to 42 percent, these voters want Democrats to control Congress. Roughly half of the respondents are more likely to vote for Democrats, and against a Republican, because of the war. When Democrats embrace Kerry and Feingold's position, their lead increases to 54 to 41 percent over a stay-the-course Republican.

What's more, battleground voters prefer a Democrat who supports the Kerry-Feingold amendment over one who does not. A candidate who advocates bringing the troops home within a year polls three percentage points better than one who says the US needs a "new direction," but stops short of calling for an exit date.

A "New Direction for America," you may recall, is the latest slogan unveiled by Democrats last week. But the public wants specifics, not slogans.

And as election time approaches, the war is by far the most important issue to the Democratic base. Half of Democrats cite the war as their top concern in these swing districts, 20 points ahead of the next issue, jobs and the economy. Key constituencies, such as African-Americans and women, respond very favorably to candidates who favor an exit strategy.

If Democrats ignore the war, voters may ignore them come November.

Arnold and Antonio?

Some strange goings-on out here on the Left Coast. The progressive Democrat Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, has so far not endorsed the party's nominee for Governor, Phil Angelides.

A couple of reasons why: First, Angelides has refused to support Villaraigosa's plan to place the ossified L.A. Unified School District under the Mayor's control. Villaraigosa is a former organizer for the teachers' union; but the union is simultaneously opposing the takeover plan and bankrolling Angelides. So that, in part, explains the rift.

The other part is that Villaraigosa --like many others-- may figure that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going thump Angelides in the November general election. The City of L.A. has a lot riding on some bond measures that Arnold is supporting and Villaraigosa might figure there's more in it to quietly support the Republican Governor than there is in investing in a losing Democratic challenger.

The third factor is that Villaraigosa is a wildly popular pol and by far one of the most favorably looked-upon Democrats in the state. He might be figuring the best thing for his personal future is to have Angelides go down in flames this fall opening the way for his own candidacy four years from now.

It's all evolving as a wonderfullly juicy story of political intrigue and calculation. Bill Bradley has more gruesome details.

Onward Christian Lawyers

In his scathing dissent in the Supreme Court decision that overturned state sodomy laws, Justice Scalia objected to the court's imposition of "foreign moods, fads or fashions on Americans." Scalia was directly referring to the citation of a 1981 European Court of Human Rights case in the court's majority opinion, but he was also reiterating a long-standing, right-wing jeremiad against "activist judges" taking any international law into consideration. Such objections would become a minor theme of "Justice Sundays" and even prompted a rare public rebuke from Sandra Day O'Connor, who said in a 2004 speech at Georgetown that "international law is a help in our search for a more peaceful world." Indeed it's not just on matters of world peace and anal sex that U.S. judges look abroad for ideas. The Supreme Court cited a UN convention in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down the juvenile death penalty, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court mentioned Canadian law when it legalized same-sex marriage.

Now it seems that the right-wing legal establishment has decided that if you can't beat them, join them. In an article for U.S. News and World Report, Scott Michels documents how the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian Right counter to the ACLU, is "taking the culture wars overseas." Michels' opens with the ADF's role in the case of Stephen Copsey, a British man who was fired for refusing to work on Sundays, and quotes ADF chief counsel Benjamin Bull as saying "if these cases are imported by the United States courts as controlling precedent, we basically abandon America as we know it." According to Michel, the ADF and other right-wing groups have "developed international networks of Christian lawyers, trained foreign lawyers, and sent their lawyers abroad."

The ADF was founded in 1994 by prominent right-wingers such as Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ), James Dobson (Focus on the Family), James Kennedy (Coral Ridge Ministries) and Don Wildmon (American Family Association). Its leader Alan Sears was the Executive Director of the notorious Meese Commission on Pornography and authored The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today. While most of the ADF's $17 million annual budget is spent litigating domestic culture war cases such as Boyscouts v. Dale and Cupertino, as well as organizing a national "Day of Truth" to oppose the "Day of Silence" organized by LGBT activists -- you can expect their international reach to grow along with evangelical interest in global issues like AIDS, religious conflict and sex trafficking.

Whatever one may think about the ADF and their ilk, you gotta admire their savviness. Blast liberals for their global ambitions; launch a stealth campaign to do the same. Since the right to discriminate against gays (or what they creatively term their "freedom of religion") seems to be ADF's raison d'etre, I refer readers to Michael Bronski's recent article on the shortcomings of the gay rights movement, in particular how gay liberation's global roots (the Gay Liberation Front was an homage of sorts to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front) are both inspiring and under-developed.

Mayor Ron Dellums

It took nearly two weeks of counting paper ballots, but this weekend it became official. Legendary, retired Bay Area congressman Ron Dellums is the new Mayor of Oakland. Dellums squeaked out his victory and avoided a run-off when he crossed the 50% mark by a razor-thin 155 votes out of more than 80,000 cast.

His nearest challenger, Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente conceded the victory on Saturday. Dellums served for nearly three decades in congress, and before retiring in 1999, firmly established a reputation as one of the most liberal representatives in the House. He was active in opposition to the war in Vietnam, to Reagan administration foreign policy and to U.S. nuclear policy. He also led campaigning against South African apartheid.

The 70-year-old former congressman made the decision to come out of political retirement last year as the Oakland Mayoral seat was set to become vacant. Twice-elected Mayor Jerry Brown was being termed out and Dellums began a vigorous campaign on a progressive platform. Though the election was hard-fought, his main rival De La Fuente is also a liberal Democrat. Mexican-born, and a former union official, De La Fuente had won the endorsement of former Mayor Brown as well as the majority of the City Council.

Dellums' re-emergence galvanized much of Oakland's sizeable progressive community and gave them a living icon around which to rally. But since his retirement from Congress, Dellums' latest career --as a lobbyist--was hardly as romantic as his tenure on the Hill. Some controversy was raised by Dellums' firm having represented a local nuclear lab, one of the country's major drug firms, and by helping Rolls Royce acquire contracts for the engines made for transport planes that carry troops to Iraq.

Oakland, which has long lived in the shadow of neighboring San Francisco, will confront Dellums with some serious challenges. It's a city that suffers a high crime rate, an extraordinarily large population of former convicts, and deep economic and social divides. Managing a city as a progressive chief executive will be a very different job than being a liberal legislator among scores of others. And no doubt Dellums will be closely scrutinized by many of the constituencies who have invested their hopes in him.

Mayor Brown had come to office under similar circumstances in 1998, promising progressive reform but he wound up emphasizing programs of crime control and downtown development. Some of Brown's liberal supporters were deeply disappointed by his tenure, though the former California governor leaves office with high favorability ratings. In the election of two weeks ago, Brown handily won the Democratic primary for state Attorney General getting more votes than any other statewide Democratic candidate.

Dellums takes office and replaces Brown on January 1. One of his first tasks will be to mend fences with De La Fuente who remains at the helm of the City Council and whose political cooperation will be key in providing a governing majority.

Democrats to Jefferson: Step Down

Democrats got tough with Rep. William Jefferson last night, voting 99-58 to boot the corrupt Congressman off the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Today he was formally removed from the seat by the entire House.

Jefferson, with his $90,000 bribe hidden in the freezer, did more than anyone to undermine the Democratic message of a Republican "culture of corruption." The legal investigation has almost certainly distracted Jefferson from rebuilding his district in impoverished New Orleans, which should be his number one priority.

Dennis Hastert asked Rep. Bob Ney to relinquish his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee. Allan Mollohan gave us his seat on the House Ethics Committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rightfully understands that Jefferson, nicknamed "Dollar Bill" by his Louisiana peers, no longer deserves the perks of a tax-writing Ways and Means seat.

"Anybody with $90,000 in your freezer, you have a problem with this Caucus," Pelosi said after the vote.

Jefferson and his allies shamelessly tried to make this debate about race. But it's really about basic standards of decency--and important electoral considerations. If Democrats want to detox the House in November, they need to clean up their own house first.

It's Sandal Season. Was Your Pedicure Made in a Sweatshop?

In a recent post I suggested that our society needs nurses more than we need manicurists. That's true, of course, but I didn't mean to belittle nail workers. Sure, good nursing can save your life, but a manicure-pedicure, especially in this toe-baring season, can make it worth living.

Unfortunately, for the women who provide this excellent experience, the work is not always pleasant. According to a report recently released by the National Asian Pacific Women's Forum, the nail salon industry wreaks havoc on workers' reproductive health. Most of the workers -- over 95% of whom are female, and 42% Asian -- make less than $17,000 a year, and lack health insurance coverage. They tend to work very long hours, exposed to poisonous chemicals. (The FDA doesn't regulate the chemicals used in cosmetics.) Studies have found that prolonged exposure to some of these toxins can be linked to miscarriages, infertility and even birth defects. This will ring true to anyone who's ever walked into a poorly ventilated salon while pregnant; as consumers, we take that wave of nausea and dizziness as a sign to get the hell out, and quickly, but the workers don't always have that choice.

If you think you've been seeing more nail shops than ever before, often with names that sound odd to the native speaker (e.g., "Cozy Nails"), you're not mistaken. According to the NAPWF report, the nail care industry has tripled in size over the last two decades, partly because the field is welcoming to immigrants with limited English language skills (unlike, say, hair, about which customers want to discourse with endless nuance and detailed specifications). Interestingly, however, this very point can creates status indignity for some workers. Ji-Sun Oh, a nail worker and LaGuardia College student, has written a fascinating ethnography of Korean-owned salons in New York City, in which she observes that the language barrier between customer and worker highlights the sense that the manicurist is a "servant", even though she is a skilled professional. She quotes a worker who had the same job in Korea, before she came to New York: "When I was in Korea, I suggested, explained and recommended many things to customers. I was a professional. But here in America, since my English is bad, I just doing nails without any act of profession while my customers talk to her friends over her cell phone."

Ji-Sun, in her paper, notes that in Korea -- the country of origin of many New York City nail workers -- a manicurist is called a "'nail artist,' which sounds more respectful." In Korea, tipping feels insulting -- it is generally reserved for beggars and prostitutes -- thus many nail workers feel degraded by the practice when they first come to the U.S. As I read Ji-Sun's paper, I thought that another reason for the status difference here in the U.S. may be the low price of the service; a discount nail industry flourishes here, unlike in Korea. In the U.S., getting your nails done is a cheap way to look and feel a whole lot better; you'll notice plenty of nail salons -- and fabulously polished nails -- in poor or working-class neighborhoods. As with discount shopping, however, the low prices often come at the cost of workers' health and safety. It may also be that because customers pay so little to get their nails done, they don't respect the women who do the job.

From Houston to Boston, nail salon workers are organizing to clean up the toxins in their workplaces. But like the nursing shortage, cosmetic safety affects consumers as well as workers. One promising project, POLISH (nice acronym, but I defy you to remember what it stands for: Participatory Leadership, Organizing and Leadership Initiative for Safety and Health), works to educate both groups about the dangers, and to organize for change. Let's hope they will eventually push companies to make these products safer, and pressure the salon owners to improve workers' conditions. As for the more subtle respect issues Ji-Sun Oh raises in her research, let's hope she and others continue to document the experiences of this long-overlooked group of workers.

House Votes 256-153 for Perpetual War

The incendiary House debate over whether the time has come to establish an Iraq exit strategy ended Friday morning with a 256-153 vote to maintain an open-ended occupation of the country where 2,500 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in fighting since 2003.

The nonbinding vote came after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who achieved her leadership position after voting in 2002 against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, delivered one of her most ardent anti-war statements yet heard from a leader of the opposition party.

"Stay the course? I don't think so Mr. President. It's time to face the facts," Pelosi told the House.

"This war is a failed policy of the Bush administration… We need a new direction in Iraq," said Pelosi, who added: "The war in Iraq has been a mistake. I say, a grotesque mistake."

The floor fight over the resolution, which was initiated by Republicans who wanted to force Democrats to either back Bush or appear to not support troops serving in Iraq, stirred intense debate. In the end, however, most Democrats and a handful of Republicans chose to counter the cynical scheming of Karl Rove's White House political machine by voting "no" to legislation that even a Republican loyalist, Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons, admitted "fails to fully address a key question that most Americans are asking: ‘When are the troops coming home?'"

Of the 256 votes for the resolution, 214 came from Republicans and 42 from Democrats.

Of the 153 votes against it, 149 came from Democrats, three from Republicans and one from Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.Pelosi was joined in voting "no" by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, in a rare show of leadership unity on a war-related issue.

The three Republicans who voted "no" were Texan Ron Paul, Tennessean John Duncan and Iowan Jim Leach, all longtime foes of the war. Several Republicans who have expressed opposition to the war, including North Carolina Representative Walter Jones Jr., voted "present" or did not vote at all.

The intense debate allowed administration supporters to mouth election-year talking points from a memo provided by the White House political shop, with Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood saying of Democratic critics of administration policies: "Many, not all, on the other side of the aisle lack the will to win." House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, declared, "When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run."

That line was countered by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the decorated Vietnam veteran who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the war. Referring to House Republicans, many of them non-veterans, who chirped during the debate about how determined they were to fight on, the Pennsylvania Democrat said "it's easy to stay in an air-conditioned office and say I'm going to stay the course."

"That's why I get so upset when they stand here sanctimoniously and say we're fighting this thing," thundered Murtha. "It's the troops that are doing the fighting."

The vote took place one day after the 2,500th American died in Iraq.White House spokesman Tony Snow, like many members of the House majority, dismissed the death toll, telling the press corps: "It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something."

What people got Friday morning was a House vote for perpetual war – and a lot more of those "500 benchmarks."