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Please, Please, Please, FCC

by Lynne K. Varner

"I don't want nobody to give me nothing. (Open up the door, I'll get it myself.)"

- James Brown

The Godfather of Soul could have easily been singing to the Federal Communications Commission, a body out of control in its efforts to turn American values of independent and diverse media on their heads.

The FCC sets the rules for media; right now, it is setting them to benefit media magnates and their high-priced lawyers and lobbyists. As a result, media are whiter, wealthier and more removed from my life and yours.

This "citadel of power," as unapologetically honest newsman Bill Moyers calls the FCC, is made up of five members, three Republicans and two Democrats.

A decade ago, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, eliminating long-standing limits on the number of radio and television stations a single company could own. Conglomerates went on a buying spree.

Clear Channel ended up owning more than a thousand radio stations, dominating the dial in some cities. Minorities and women once shut out of media ownership by discrimination were now shut out by high costs only the big boys could afford. A loss of independent voices, diversity and authenticity were the results.

The FCC wants to change the rules some more so big media can go on another binge. The commission has held public hearings around the country to gauge the public's reaction, but it feels like window dressing on an already done deal. Cementing my suspicion was the FCC's decision late last Friday to hold its sixth and final hearing on media ownership in Seattle this coming Friday.

Whoa! What's the hurry? The FCC's Dec. 18 deadline has the effect of moving big-business interests from the fast track to a bullet train.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, dashed off a communiqué asking the FCC for more notice - say, four weeks. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.,echoed the request. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., unlikely bedfellows, have been calling for the FCC to slow down, study the issue of media ownership more and gather more public comment.

From Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, people with a stake in this fight should be in Seattle on Friday afternoon. The five commissioners want our opinion. Here's mine:

Media outlets owned by diverse communities are slowly but surely growing. So is the appetite for these niche markets. A 2005 study, "Ethnic Media in America: The Giant Hidden in Plain Sight," found that 13 percent of Americans prefer ethnic publications, and one-fourth regularly consumes such fare. The FCC should help grow, not shrink, these markets.

Supporting independent media helps outlets like my employer, The Seattle Times. Newsrooms, including ours, have been broadening the kinds of people who help decide what makes news and who is considered news. An added benefit is that when a publication is owned by members of a community, employees are likely to come from within the community, too.

The direction the FCC is taking us, one where the media are controlled by a few with goals less about journalism and more about creating wealth and consolidating control, is not where I want to go.

The ensuing loss of local and diverse news will not be made up by 24-hour cable or the Internet because much of that fare is commentary and entertainment, an opinion I reached after reading "Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media."

The two Democrats on the FCC, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, are fighting from the inside to slow the government agency's roll.

"The FCC has a sad history when it comes to its treatment of women and minorities in broadcasting," Adelstein said recently. "We need to implement policies that will address this crisis before we act on any rules to further consolidate the media, which can only take media outlets further out of the reach of women and people of color."

Comforting words, but Adelstein and Copps are having to battle being shut out and outvoted by the three Republicans on the panel.

I'll end on a note of optimism. It isn't over until it's over. This region ought to welcome the FCC to the Emerald City in proper Seattle fashion by flooding the e-mail inboxes of our congressional representatives, inviting every key person we know to Friday's hearing and, most of all, jamming the place with our bodies and voices.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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