“All eyes of the nation should be on Philadelphia Wednesday, but now they’re going to be on Michael Powell’s public scolding of Janet Jackson,” lamented Jeff Chester, head of the non-profit Center for Digital Democracy.
Wednesday, February 11, is when opening arguments on the FCC’s new media ownership rules are scheduled to be heard in a Philadelphia appeals court. That’s the same day that the GOP Congress has called back-to-back hearings in the House and Senate on violence and indecency on the public airwaves. (At least one Democratic FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, planned to travel to Philadelphia for opening arguments in the appeal of the agency’s controversial decision last June, but had to change his plans when Congress tapped him–and the other four FCC commisioners, including Michael Powell–to testify. )
We can expect Powell to rail against profanity and smut on TV, and repeat his refrain that Viacom/CBS/MTV’s Super Bowl stunt with Janet and Justin must be punished. He and several Republicans are already pushing a bill to increase indecency fines tenfold. But for most conglomerates, even major fines won’t dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most.
As Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, put it, “I don’t think the solution to indecency and bad taste is more fines. I think it’s selecting broadcasters that are going to be more responsive to the needs of the local community.”
By holding the hearings on the same day as opening arguments in Philadelphia, the GOP Congress and Bush Administration are cravenly trying to change the channel–deflecting attention from their own role in creating the TV networks’ weapons of mass distraction.
This week, the important implications are in Philadelphia–not DC. That’s where public advocates, media labor unions, and church groups square off against Viacom/CBS; News Corp/Fox; GE/NBC, and lawyers representing almost every newspaper in the US, all of whom will be arguing that the court should affirm and extend what Michael Powell and his GOP wrecking crew did last June.
For years, the media industry has had a sympathetic hearing in the DC Appeals Court. So, the networks and newspaper companies were shocked when the Philly Court–after winning the case in a lottery–took the arguments of the media reformers seriously. (The court suspended implementation of Powell’s rules–putting on hold all the deals planned to begin after the FCC June 2 decision.)
It would be a shame if the grandstanding in DC this week overshadows what happens in a courtroom in Philadelphia. It is there that the future of our media landscape may be decided. Will we live with Citizen Kane on steroids? Or can we achieve a media that serves the public interests of citizens? Now, that would be a victory for decency.