What do Americans want from their media? As a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, I hear a lot about this issue.
I hear that Americans want to listen to hometown talent on the radio and to see local issues and politicians covered on the nightly news. They want an in-depth look at what's going on at City Hall and the schools their children attend. In short, they want to know what's really going on in their neighborhoods and to see the essentials of their own lives reported accurately to the larger world.
This week, I'm visiting Seattle along with my colleague, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, to hear about whether citizens in the Emerald City are getting the kind of media outlets they want and need. It's especially important to us because the Federal Communications Commission will soon be deciding whether to allow a small number of media giants to buy up the remaining local broadcasters and other media outlets across the land. We're here to listen to your thoughts at a town hall meeting in the downtown Seattle Public Library at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
Seattle is a special town in which to have this crucial conversation. It is fortunate enough to have a paper (the very one you hold in your hands) that has firmly committed itself to covering and editorializing on the troubling issue of media consolidation — an issue that makes many media outlets, especially those owned by large conglomerates, very uncomfortable. Apparently, these outlets think that ignoring the issue will make it go away. I don't think so!
Once again, the openness of our media is under direct threat from the very federal agency charged with promoting media localism and diversity. Three years ago — in a process seemingly designed to exclude public comment — a majority at the FCC voted (over the objections of Commissioner Adelstein and me) to scrap many of the ownership limits previously in existence. Instead, the agency's new rules allowed a single corporation to dominate local media markets by merging the community's TV stations, radio stations, newspaper and other outlets. A storm of public outrage ensued.
Three million citizens contacted the FCC to express their opposition to the new rules. I didn't know that 3 million people knew there was an FCC! But these concerned Americans wrote us out of a strong belief that we desperately need rules to prevent one-size-fits-all news from becoming the acceptable standard in our communities.
Congress went on record with its concerns, too. And then a federal court found the rules both substantively and procedurally flawed and sent them back to us to rework. Several months ago, the FCC launched a review of these very same rules.
So a new dialogue is under way. But this time, it needs to be much more than an inside-the-Beltway discussion between a government agency and a few mega-corporations.
Let's remember that American citizens — not TV and radio executives — own the airwaves. We give broadcasters the right to use these airwaves for free. They earn profits using this public resource in exchange for their agreement to broadcast in the public interest. We want to know — from you — whether Seattle's and the nation's broadcasters are holding up their end of the bargain.
Even if the future of our media is not your No. 1 issue, it needs to be — it has to be — your No. 2 issue. That's because Americans get their input and develop their views about all the other critical issues of the day — the war, jobs, the economy, health care, education, etc. — from the media. They learn about them on TV news, hear about them on the radio, and read about them in the newspaper. I can't think of any of these issues that wouldn't fare much better in an open, diverse, community-responsive and competitive environment.
Seventy years ago, Gertrude Stein returned to her hometown to find that she could not locate the house she'd grown up in. She famously stated, "There is no there there." When our children look one day at the media system we have left them — and take up the reins of self-government — I hope they never have to share Stein's chilling conclusion.
So, I urge you to attend this week's town meeting. We need your input and the input of as many of our fellow citizens as we can attract. I believe we have the best chance in our generation to settle this issue of who will control our media and for what purposes, and to resolve it in favor of airwaves of, by, and for the people of this great country. But it will take a lot of us, working together, to make it happen.
Michael J. Copps is a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.
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