On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission decided, by a partisan 3-2 vote, to "deregulate" the media. Gone are restrictions preventing newspapers from owning television stations; limits on the number of television stations a corporation may own, and nationwide viewers it may reach, have been relaxed.
The FCC acted despite holding only one public hearing, although the chairman and staff did have 71 private meetings with communications industry officials. Three quarters of a million private citizens deluged the FCC with letters and e-mail, demanding that the public interest be served. Many were especially outraged by the revelation that FCC officials had taken 2,500 trips sponsored by the broadcast industry, a $2.7 million purchase of favor and influence.
The battle to assure that media serve the public interest is not lost. What commissioners can cavalierly take away, Congress can restore. The airwaves are regulated; every radio and television broadcaster enjoys monopoly ownership of frequency it uses. In return for their concession to use the public airwaves and the public space through which cable is strung, broadcasters should be required to serve our democracy's need for an open and vigorous media.
Here are eight steps Congress can take to create a free, diverse and locally responsive media.
1. Repeal the recent FCC rulings. To eliminate concentration of ownership and encourage a diversity of viewpoints, include a provision that no person or entity which owns one form of media can receive a license to broadcast in another medium no cross-ownership of newspapers, television, radio, cable.
2. Limit ownership of broadcast stations to three for television, five for radio, with no overlap of broadcast areas. The example of Clear Channel, which in the wake of previous deregulation bought up over 1,200 radio stations, is precisely what is to be avoided.
3. Reinstate the fairness doctrine. Persons with opposing points of view should be afforded free air time to respond to political statements. And extend the fairness doctrine to require some balance in political talk shows: if there are three conservative hosts on a station, there must be at least one liberal one, and vice versa.
4. Support local news. Television and radio stations should be required to produce and air local news as a condition of using the public airwaves.
5. Reinstate the public service requirement. Each station provide substantial evidence of service as a requirement of license renewal.
6. Give free air time to political candidates. Each station and cable network should be obliged to provide substantial broadcast time to candidates for federal office, for the top three positions in each state, and for top local officials. This will not only encourage democracy, it will be a substantial step toward campaign finance reform.
7. Make local stations mandatory in all reception packages. Satellite and cable television providers should include local television stations including local public access television in their basic package. Enact the same requirement for the emerging satellite radio companies.
8. Maintain Internet access and diversity. Companies providing telecommunications services should be required to carry Internet traffic at low cost, as is current practice. The Internet must not in the future be controlled by companies wealthy enough to pay to disseminate particular news and views.