Even as he condemned the 3-to-2 vote of the Federal Communications Commission to allow media conglomerates to dramatically increase their control over newspapers and radio and television stations, Commissioner Michael Copps closed his twenty-three-page dissent on an optimistic note. “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,” Copps said. “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.”
Copps’s comments are a reminder that while opponents of the media-ownership rule changes lost the June 2 fight, public indignation over the FCC process and the prospect of increased consolidation of media ownership may have built an army that can win the war. Mere months ago, few expected that the FCC would receive 750,000 e-mails, cards, letters and calls opposing the changes. Fewer still imagined that groups as diverse as Code Pink: Women’s Pre-emptive Strike for Peace and the National Rifle Association would see the logic of Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein’s suggestion that the “McDonaldization” of media would leave little room for dissenting voices on the left or on the noncorporate right. And no one dared speculate that more than 150 members of Congress would actively oppose rule changes promoted by some of the most powerful special interests in America.
When the FCC went ahead with the changes, Congress went ballistic. “The FCC has ignored the public’s will and the public interest to enact a massive giveaway of public resources to a few privileged insiders,” declared Senator John Edwards, as he and fellow Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry sought to outflank each other as the Senate’s chief champion of media diversity. Senator Trent Lott said of the FCC’s decision to allow one network to buy up TV stations that reach as much as 45 percent of the national audience: “A lot of Republicans, in fact, probably most of the Republicans in Congress, would not agree with this decision.”
If Lott’s right, there’s hope for Congressional moves to codify a 35 percent cap on national broadcast ownership, for appropriations language to limit the FCC’s ability to implement the newly relaxed rules and for a call by senators for antitrust regulators to stop mergers and acquisitions that injure media competition.
And if Commissioner Copps is right that an angry giant has been awakened, that anger must be marshaled to support not just a rollback of the FCC’s June 2 action but also challenges to conditions that existed before the vote: hypercommercialization, diminished public service commitments and consolidation of radio station ownership. Copps says that now “we have a chance to settle this issue of who will control our media and for what purposes, and to resolve it in favor of public airwaves of, by and for the people of this great country.” That’s a chance America can’t afford to miss.