The Federal Communications Commission's hopscotch through the rules that govern the press and media began last week with a hearing in Los Angeles. The commissioners should treat the restrictive rules like a porcelain vase filled with Grandpa's ashes, given the overwhelming response from the public at the hearing to keep the Biggies from owning everything.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin should not be surprised by the lopsided support for his commission to maintain rules that stymie huge media conglomerates from adding to their already massive portfolios (a disgusting term when talking about the press).
At least Martin showed up. His predecessor, Commissioner Michael Powell, did not attend any of the hearings set up by Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein in 2003, when the FCC rewrote the rules so the Biggies could buy anything without regard to readers and communities.
A Stanford professor was brought in for the Los Angeles hearing to bolster the cause of consolidation. Amazingly, he claimed media are more diverse than ever. Strange position for somebody living in the Bay Area, where two companies — MediaNews Group out of Denver and Hearst out of New York — control everything from San Francisco east to Contra Costa and south to Monterey.
Adding to the supposedly rich diversity in the Bay Area, MediaNews recently entered into some strange financial arrangement with Hearst.
The Bay Area is not an anomaly. Almost all American cities are saddled with distant owners that consider the local paper nothing more than a commodity.
Further evidence of the sad state of the press is the lack of coverage the first hearing received. The Associated Press covered it. So did the Los Angeles Times. That was about it. The Seattle Times surprisingly overlooked this important story. If there is an issue newsrooms should be concerned about, it is this.
If the big national papers and regional papers are not going to cover this issue as it progresses, I hope for a cyber-response along the lines of the Internet neutrality debate. A resistance of funny and cheap videos on YouTube and Web sites like www.stopbigmedia.com have been able to hold off the well-financed lobbyists who want telecommunication companies such as Verizon to be able to charge for faster Internet service.
With little coverage and no agitation from the Internet, we might see something similar to the failed Powell changes, which would have let a company own an unlimited number of radio and television stations in a single market. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia sent the new rules back to the FCC.
The court's decision had one major fault that Martin can exploit. The court said the FCC could jettison the cross-ownership ban, but was not going to break the ruling into parts.
If Martin is serious about an honest examination of cross-ownership, he should take a close look at a report that was buried during Powell's reign. It showed that concentration of ownership hurt local TV news.
Martin also needs to schedule the other five hearings he has promised. I cannot imagine he has the time or inclination to do more before the upcoming election, but will probably move quickly to wrap up the hearings before the 2008 presidential election.
This should not be a partisan issue, but it is, and Republicans are still a majority on the FCC. Now is the time for those who care about democracy and a free press to be loud. As I wrote back in June, write your congressmen and senators. Go to the FCC hearings.
And please, get on your local newspaper editor and radio and television producers to cover what the FCC is doing. It should be a no-brainer.
Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company