As if there was need for more evidence that major media is neglecting to cover Federal Communications Commission deliberations on whether to fundamentally alter media ownership rules, a new survey shows that 72 percent of Americans know “nothing at all” about the debate in which FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says “fundamental values and democratic virtues are at stake.”

Only four percent of 1,254 adults surveyed by the Project For Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with the Pew Research Center for the People and The Press said they had heard “a lot” about the FCC’s deliberations regarding rule changes that could redefine the shape and scope of American media.

Echoing concerns voiced by consumer, public interest and labor groups, as well as a growing number of members of Congress, Copps has argued that the FCC should schedule more official hearings on the proposed rule changes. The commissioner also says that major media outlets — especially the nation’s television networks — have a responsibility to cover the debate over whether to allow greater consolidation of media ownership at the national level and the removal of barriers to control by individual corporations of most of the television, radio and newspaper communications in particular communities.

“I’m frankly concerned about consolidation in the media, and particularly concerned that we are on the verge of dramatically altering our nation’s media landscape without the kind of debate and analysis that these issues clearly merit,” Copps said as the commission’s sole scheduled official hearing opened Thursday in Richmond, Virginia.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has long been the commission’s most ardent advocate for rule changes favored by media corporation lobbyists, has resisted efforts to open up the debate. Thursday’s hearing in Richmond offered some explanation for why Powell has sought to constrain the dialogue.

Despite rough winter weather, hundreds of critics of the proposed relaxation of controls on consolidation packed the hall where the commissioners heard testimony. While representatives of television networks and newspaper chains argued for the rule changes, the clear signal from the crowd was expressed by David Croteau, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who told commissioners: “Less regulation will be a windfall for a few giant media corporations. It is likely to be a huge mistake for the rest of us.”

Consolidation has already changed the face of media for the worse, argued Rain Burroughs, a Richmond daycare center worker. Burroughs told the commission that “the best programs don’t get to air because of the obsession to maximize profits. Today, we are bombarded with sensationalist, mindless, violent shows.”

During the public comment period, speaker after speaker rose to express opposition to rules changes that would lead to more consolidation and commercialization. As the day came to a close, speakers suggested to the commissioners that the public had spoken — loudly — against the proposed changes.

“What we are seeing is that, as the public becomes more aware that these issues are on the table before the FCC, people are chomping at the bit to say, ‘No, don’t do this,'” said Michael Bracy, director of government relations for the Future of Music Coalition, which recently produced a report that exposed the damage done to diversity and content by the consolidation of radio ownership made possible by rule changes in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The new poll from the Project For Excellence in Journalism confirms Bracy’s assessment. Among Americans who said they thought that allowing companies to own more TV, radio and newspaper outlets would make a difference, the survey found that by a 3-1 margin they believe the impact will be a negative one. The proportion of those surveyed who said that the impact of the changes would be negative rose significantly among those Americans who said they knew “a little” or “a lot” about the current debate.

Copps argued in his statement at the opening of Thursday’s hearing that the dialogue needs to be dramatically expanded before the FCC makes any decisions on the proposed rules changes. “While the participation of business representatives is essential, so is the input of consumers, labor, educational and religious, minority organizations, and Americans who have never heard of the FCC,” Copps said. “We can pretend that these folks read the Federal Register and can afford lawyers to fully participate in our inside-the-beltway decision making. But we’d be kidding ourselves. This decision is too important to make in a business-as-usual way. We need America’s buy-in…”

Despite the good dialogue in Richmond, however, that buy-in has yet to occur. Scant major media coverage has created a situation where, as the Project For Excellence in Journalism survey illustrates, most Americans still do not know that the future of media — and the democracy and culture it influences — is up for grabs.