When the Federal Communications Commission voted June 2 to remove key restrictions on media consolidation, dissident Commissioner Michael Copps warned, "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. 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. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."
Barely two weeks after Copps uttered those words, he was proven right, as the Senate Commerce Committee responded with rare haste to the public outcry that followed the FCC decision. In a sweeping rejection of the agency's decision to provide already large media conglomerates with opportunities to extend their dominance of the nation's political and cultural discourse, the committee on Thursday endorsed a legislative package that reverses the worst of the rule changes. The legislation also orders the FCC to open up the closed and corrupted process by which it considers rule changes.
While the Commerce Committee action is just the first step toward reversing the FCC decision, Gene Kimmelman, Consumers Union's Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, says, "Today's vote creates enormous momentum to block further mergers among media giants. It represents a victory for those who support more competition and diversity from local and national media. But the fight is not over. Now we are going to carry this momentum to the full Senate and House."
The legislation that cleared the Commerce Committee Thursday would:
* Bar individual corporations from buying up television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's households. Under pressure from big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Fox networks, and Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UBN networks, the FCC had voted to lift the ownership cap to 45 percent.
* Bar individual corporations from buying up the daily newspaper and television and radio stations in local markets. By restoring key aspects of the old "newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership" rule, the committee made it harder for the Gannett, Tribune and Knight-Ridder media corporations to gain control of most media in a community and then create a single newsroom to feed one-size-fits-all news to newspaper readers as well as radio listeners and television viewers. (This measure still needs to be strengthened to assure that a loophole that allows for some cross-ownership in small markets is not exploited.)
* Eliminate an exemption that would have allowed radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel and Infinity, to maintain control of radio stations in markets where they are in violation of ownership caps. Sponsored by Commerce Committee chair John McCain, R-Arizona, this measure could force Clear Channel and other media giants to sell off many of its more than 1,200 radio stations.
* Require the FCC to open up its decision-making process by holding at least five official public hearings, at locations around the country before changing media ownership rules. This is a clear rebuke to FCC chair Michael Powell, who allowed only one official public hearing before the June 2 vote.
* Indicate that Congress wants the FCC to consider not just proposals to loosen ownership rules that are promoted by big media corporations but also steps to strengthen and broaden limits on consolidation and monopoly. This is a signal to the federal courts that Congress wants them to define the public interest more broadly, rather than simply pressuring the FCC to ease ownership rules.
"The airwaves belong to the people," declared U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, as the committee approved key components of the "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Act of 2003" (S.1046) initiative. "Broadcasters use them, under licenses that require localism and a diversity of voices. The actions taken by the FCC to raise the national ownership cap and virtually eliminate the previous ban on broadcast-newspaper combinations ignores that requirement, and advances corporate interests at the expense of the public's interest."
Hailing the committee vote as a firm Congressional response to FCC moves he described as "the fastest, most complete cave in to big corporate interests" he had ever seen, Dorgan said the legislation "restores some sense of reason to this process."
The legislation, which was endorsed by a solid voice vote of the committee, gained bipartisan support from senators who had been flooded with emails, letters and petitions urging them to reverse the FCC's moves. While the total number of communications to members of the committee is not yet clear, it is known that members of Congress have received more than 300,000 messages from foes of the rule changes in the period since June 2. This follows on the unprecedented 750,000 communications that the FCC received from opponents of the rule changes.
Dorgan and other critics of the FCC's moves say their hand has been strengthened significantly by the level of public indignation. But they still have work to do before citizen anger and legislative action restores limits on media consolidation. With support from key senators such as Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the legislation has a change to move forward in the Senate. But barriers are likely to be erected by members of the leadership who are close to the Bush administration, which pressured the three Republicans on the FCC to enact the rule changes.
The task will be even tougher in the House of Representatives, where House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, has indicated his determination to preserve the rule changes. Tauzin, like several other key GOP players in the House, has been a major recipient of campaign contributions from the communications industry, and the Louisiana representative has a record of playing hardball when his corporate allies are threatened.
But Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, says the momentum on behalf of legislation to reverse the FCC is growing. "The Democrats in Congress have started to take these issues a lot more seriously," says Sanders, a veteran advocate for media diversity. "And I am now being approached on a regular basis by Republicans, some of them very conservative, who say the FCC went way too far this time."
Ultimately, Sanders said in recent meetings with his Vermont constituents, the question of whether the FCC changes are reversed rests with the American people. If the level of opposition that has been witnessed in recent weeks is maintained, Sanders says, "If the mail keeps coming, if people keep complaining, members of Congress are going to recognize that they can't hide from this issue."
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