Media monopolists were dealt a rare setback when the Philadelphia-based US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit blocked implementation of last year’s decision by the Federal Communications Commission to loosen media-ownership rules at the local and national levels. Even Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, owner of the Fox channels, the Weekly Standard, the New York Post and other media properties, was forced to announce that “plans for expansion will be put on hold.” It wasn’t supposed to be this way with a White House and Congress controlled by Republicans, who are major recipients of campaign contributions from big-media interests. But two years of organizing by consumer, church and labor groups opposed to the rule changes and smart legal strategies by the Prometheus Radio Project–which sued the FCC–and the Media Access Project have blocked moves that, among other things, would have allowed one company to own the daily newspaper, up to three television stations, up to eight radio stations and other media all in the same market.
It’s a battle won but certainly not the war. The industry-friendly FCC majority will go back to work trying to fashion a rationale for loosening the rules, and even if they fail, the Court’s ruling only locks in the media system that was in place on June 2, 2003–hardly a halcyon moment. “The commission needs to reverse course and start protecting the people’s interest and the people’s airwaves,” says dissident FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who is touring the country this summer holding town hall meetings highlighting the threat to democratic discourse and cultural diversity posed by consolidation of media ownership. For a real reversal of course to occur, however, Copps and the five-member commission’s other dissident, Jonathan Adelstein, need an ally who can tip the balance in a public-interest direction. That’s unlikely to happen if George W. Bush wins in November, but it might if John Kerry wins–though Kerry needs a push to get more serious about media reform.
The real leadership could come from Congress, where a growing number of members, led by North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan and House members such as New York’s Maurice Hinchey and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, are working to turn the bipartisan coalition that opposed the FCC rule changes into a legislative force that will restore public-interest protections and ownership caps undermined or eliminated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other Congressional and FCC misdeeds. “The court decision is step one,” says Sanders. “The American people, however, will not be satisfied until Congress has totally ended the very dangerous idea of allowing more media consolidation. Now it is time for Congress to become pro-active and to fight for legislation which will allow for more localism, more diversity of opinion and more competition in the media.”