Above the crowd at Saturday's Farmers' Market on the Capitol Square bobbed a sign that read "Stop Media Monopoly." An arrow on the bottom of the sign pointed to a table that was surrounded by people signing petitions opposing the six media ownership rules that will be considered June 2 by the Federal Communications Commission.
The woman with the sign and the women behind the table were not representatives of some national organization. They had gotten no prompt from a Washington-based interest group to build another faux grass-roots movement. Like the thousands of Americans who have gathered at town hall meetings and public hearings from Burlington, Vt., to Seattle and who have mounted petition drives, letter-writing campaigns and rallies to stop these rule changes, these women are the grass roots.
They are citizens who have felt their way through a media brownout to the truth about what the FCC is considering, recognized the threat that these moves pose to democratic discourse and cultural diversity, and decided to do something about it.
"We put our own literature together, printed up our own petitions and went where the people were," explained Sheila Cohen, one of the organizers. "We didn't know if anyone would know what we were talking about, since the media has done such a poor job of covering all this. But I think most Americans understand that there's something terribly wrong with the idea of making it possible for media companies that are already too big to get bigger."
If anything, people understand all too well. Cohen and her compatriots could not keep ahead of the crowds that responded to the opportunity to express their opposition to rule changes that would permit one company to gain control of virtually all print, broadcast and cable communications in a given market.
"We couldn't keep up with the demand for pens to sign the petitions," she said. "In a few hours, more than 400 people signed."
Cohen and her loose-knit group will be back at the Farmers' Market next Saturday, with more petitions, more literature and homemade pins proclaiming, "Oppose Media Monopoly" and "ARM: Advocates for Reform of the Media." "I don't know if it will have any impact on the commission this time, but we're not going away," Cohen says. "This issue is not going away."
That is the most fundamental lesson of the debate over these rules. FCC Chair Michael Powell has used all of the old tricks - a narrow window for public comment, a single public hearing, exceptionally limited study of the consequences of the changes, and a rushed schedule for discussion and decision-making - to keep the American people out of the discussion. Despite these maneuvers, however, the people have begun to catch on.
Never before has an FCC decision become such a major issue. Never before have labor, religious, civil rights, civil liberties and journalists' organizations expressed such united anger at and opposition to the approach of the FCC to so vital an issue. And never before have citizen at the grass roots, in towns across the country, been so engaged in the struggle to assure that media consolidation does not choke off competition, diversity, localism and the democratic discourse that Americans cherish.
No matter what the FCC decides next Tuesday, the vote will be a historic one. If the rule changes are approved, it will be the last time that FCC gets away with choosing the corporate interest over the public interest. Or if they are rejected, it will be the first victory for Sheila Cohen, the women at that table in Madison and the millions of Americans who have decided that they will no longer allow the rules governing our airwaves and our communications to be written by the corporations the FCC is supposed to regulate.
The tide has turned. The only question is whether the members of the FCC will recognize the shift before or after June 2.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times