It’s no secret that Washington has a limited interest in the public interest these days. So the Senate Commerce Committee’s vote to restore media-ownership controls that were lifted on June 2 by the Federal Communications Commission was indeed remarkable. All the more remarkable was the willingness of the committee to back legislation that actually encourages the FCC to weigh measures to strengthen restrictions on media consolidation and monopoly.
What gives? Are Republican stalwarts like Alaska’s Ted Stevens and Mississippi’s Trent Lott turning into the trustbusters of the twenty-first century? Don’t bet on it. Media reform, the issue almost no one in Washington took seriously a year ago, is on the agenda because hundreds of thousands of Americans put it there by flooding first the FCC and then Congress with their outrage at regulatory machinations designed to let Big Media get even bigger. And as long as the people keep complaining, the issue will have bipartisan legs.
That’s because, when issues that involve the inner workings of democracy are put on the table, traditional political seating charts get tossed. Just as campaign-finance-reform initiatives of the mid-1990s attracted support from unexpected Congressional allies–some acting from real concern for democracy, some from self-interested concern about whether they could hold their own as fundraisers–so dozens of members of both parties are signing on to various Congressional initiatives that seek to defend diversity, competition and local control of the media.
Some are battered Republican moderates like Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and Iowa Representative Jim Leach, who worry just as much as progressive Democrats like North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan and New York Representative Maurice Hinchey about the right-wing takeover of talk-radio and cable TV channels and the damage done to the national discourse when too much control of media ends up in too few hands.
But an assessment of the newfound Congressional interest in media ownership must take in another factor: the growing awareness of senators and representatives that Big Media has little interest in what they do. Speaking at a Future of Music Coalition conference, Florida Representative Mark Foley, a Republican rising star, complained that when he got started in politics he was covered by at least five Palm Beach-area radio stations. Today, Foley says, he feels lucky if one station reports on him or the issues he’s working on. And TV is worse than radio. As Commerce Committee chair John McCain writes, “When it comes to the important public service of covering political campaigns, broadcast television has been increasingly missing in action.”
A study by the Norman Lear Center Local News Archive found that over half of local news reports contained no political coverage in the run-up to the 2002 election, making paid campaign advertising the dominant form of political communication for much of the country. Many members of Congress and state legislatures now say they’re unwilling to support broader campaign finance reforms, since they think they need big advertising budgets to “buy” their way onto TV channels that would otherwise ignore them.
This creates a rare opening for reformers. Job one is to get the Commerce Committee’s rebuke of the FCC endorsed by the full Senate and through the House. That will require more pressure from citizens. The FCC received more than 700,000 communications opposing the rule changes before June 2, and since then Congress has received about 300,000 calls for intervention. With Senate action possible after the Fourth of July break, though not assured, this is the time to gear up the grassroots once more.
But let’s not stop with a rollback of the rule changes. This is also the right time to push hard for legislation sponsored by McCain and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold that would force television and radio stations to devote at least two hours a week at election time to candidate- and issue-centered programming.
Pressure from the public has created an opening for reformers who want Big Media to respect the public interest. Members of Congress who see something in it for themselves have shown a willingness to expand that opening. There’s an opportunity here to do a lot more than just tell the FCC off; we might even be able, in McCain’s words, to “reclaim the airwaves for our democracy.”