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Next FCC Must Grasp Change — and Truly Understand History

by Ryan Blethen

The press is missing a chance to examine where the remaining presidential candidates stand on media policy, especially issues before the Federal Communications Commission.

So far, the press corps has whiffed on a media-policy softball served up by The New York Times last week.

Instead, the smell of a sex scandal was too irresistible for the cable-news networks. And the printed press was obsessed with the question - albeit a legitimate one - of The Times' execution of the story, which alleged that John McCain had an improper relationship with a telecommunications lobbyist while heading the Senate Commerce Committee - the committee with oversight of the FCC.

The story's merits deserve a good and worthy discussion. Unfortunately, the heated debate has squeezed out any legitimate issues raised by The Times. The article gave readers a glimpse of how the FCC might look and work in a McCain presidency.

What emerges from the piece, once the distractions of unnamed sources and suggestions of an affair are thatched back, is disturbing. McCain used his considerable power as chairman of the Commerce Committee to force the FCC into approving the sale of a Pittsburgh television station to a major contributor in his 2000 presidential campaign.

McCain's actions while Commerce Committee chairman were not new revelations. The Boston Globe reported in 2000 how McCain received significant donations from companies with business before the FCC after he wrote letters urging the commission to act.

Lobbyists and donors snuggling up to politicians is not new, rare or shocking. McCain has further to fall, though. He has branded himself as a fighter against the influence of special interests in politics.

McCain's close relations with the corporations that had business before the regulatory agency he oversaw is troublesome. It raises questions as to who will head the agency in a McCain administration, and what will be tolerated.

The next president has a chance to reshape the FCC. For too long the agency has chipped away - or gutted - rules essential to democracy. A good example is what happened to the cross-ownership rules, which forbade a company from owning a newspaper, broadcast outlet and an Internet service provider in the same market. The ban has been under heavy fire from the past two FCC chairmen. The FCC changed the rules late last year, allowing for massive media consolidation. The rule change is a serious threat to what is left of the United States' independent press.

The commission's failures do not stop with media-ownership issues. The FCC has allowed telecommunication and cable companies to swallow the competition, and abuse consumers.

The FCC is a partisan body pegged to the White House. Three seats for the party that holds the presidency, two for second place. Many of the issues dealt with by the commission are nonpartisan, or should be.

It cannot be assumed that because McCain is a Republican that he will do worse by the FCC than a Democrat.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has rarely brought up media policy during the campaign, and has been unimpressive when the topic does arise. According to The New York Times, a voter in Iowa asked her about media consolidation and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

She gave a classic non-answer: "I'm not saying anything against any company in particular. I just want to see more competition, especially in the same markets."

So far, Barack Obama has inspired the most confidence. He favors network neutrality and is for a dispersed press. He has sponsored a bill to try and force the FCC to step away from its lifting of the cross-ownership ban. Obama also said he will appoint commissioners who are in line with his views.

This is an important election for the FCC. The public deserves a commission filled with people who can grasp the rapidly-changing media, yet understand the historical and structural importance of the press and media to our democratic system.

It is time the press divert its attention from speculation over an affair and focus on the candidates' vision for one of America's most important regulatory agencies.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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