Portland, Maine - The quality and quantity of local news reporting, as presented by Maine's newspapers, television and radio stations, was the topic of a seven-hour public discussion Thursday night in Portland, where the Federal Communications Commission held its fifth of six nationwide public hearings.
Virtually everyone agreed that local programming is essential. Some said media outlets owned by large conglomerates are not providing enough coverage of local people and events, while those outlets defended themselves, emphasizing the donations and free air time they give to charitable organizations.
Hundreds of people from all over New England streamed in and out of Portland High School to listen to 23 panelists and 140 members of the public take the microphone in a rare opportunity to testify before the FCC, an FCC spokeswoman said. The hearing was broadcast live on the FCC Web site.
Four of the five presidentially-appointed FCC commissioners were present. The panelists, each given five minutes to speak, were broadcasters, station managers, newspaper publishers, professors and union organizers from around New England. Their discussion focused on Maine and whether the trend of large media companies purchasing newspapers and stations has negatively or positively influenced coverage of the state's local issues.
"We have got to find a way in this country...to enhance the performance operations of consolidated media," said Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps in his opening remarks. Copps chaired the meeting in the absence of Chairman Kevin J. Martin.
During the two public comment periods, more media representatives, politicians and news readers, listeners and viewers expressed their specific frustrations with Maine media, including: virtually no locally produced children's television programming, offensive portrayals of the homeless population, too few local musicians on the radio, overtly sexual news anchors and a lack of diversity among the ethnic backgrounds represented by anchors and on the panel.
Panelist Ben Haskell, executive vice president and academic dean of New England School of Communications in Bangor, said the broadcasting industry knows it must respond to the public demand for local news.
"Whether you call it 'localism' or 'serving in the public interest,' it cannot and will not go away," Haskell said.
Some disagreed. Jon Bartholomew, national media and democracy organizer for Common Cause, spoke during the public comment period and said in-depth local news coverage is disappearing.
"Instead of just a P.S.A. [public service announcement] on the homeless population, we need to know why there are homeless people, what our legislators are doing about it, how citizens can get involved and what we need to do about it," Bartholomew said.
Many newspapers, radio and television stations lamented the high cost of local news coverage and insisted they are doing all they can to feature stories from their communities alongside national news.
Judy Horan, president and general manager for WLBZ 2 in Bangor, rose during the first public comment period to explain the financial and professional resources her station has gained since it was purchased by Virginia-based Gannett Co. Inc. in 1998. Gannett also purchased WCSH 6 in Portland.
"I like to say that investment strengthened a local voice and a local business important to the residents of eastern and central Maine," Horan said. "Automation that centralized some of our operations now allows all employees to produce local content, online as well as on air."
Paul Dupuis, operations director for Cumulus Radio in Brewer, emphasized the collaboration between his company, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and Clear Channel Communications to coordinate news updates in the event of an emergency.
The FCC decided in 2004 to hold the series of "localism" hearings. The first one took place in California in October. When Portland appeared on the list of locations, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe encouraged the FCC to schedule the hearing as soon as possible, her staff said Thursday.
"I applaud the FCC for convening today in Maine, because the views of local communities are essential in determining how to move forward in securing localism at this critical juncture," Snowe said in a prepared statement. "The information the Commission does gather at these hearings will be invaluable for its reevaluation of media ownership rulemaking and, more specifically, the promotion of competition, diversity of voices and localism."
The FCC recorded the hearing and said the recording will be made available to the public. The public may also file comments or other documents with the commission and should reference MB 04-233. Filing instructions are provided at http://www. fcc.gov/localism/filinginstructions.doc.
© 2007 The Bangor Daily News