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.)