Money and politics A confluence of dunces



Lobbyists and a stacked FCC make the rules

Michael Powell
Although the FCC has existed for 70 years, its rule governing media ownership was fashioned in a narrow, 18-month time frame - and not by happenstance. The machinations that created the lax ownership rules began in February 2001, when President Bush appointed Michael Powell as FCC Chairman; the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell had been a commissioner prior to his appointment.

The makeup of the commission itself is also important in understanding the rules. By law, the political party in power dominates the commission, and besides Powell, a Republican, two other Commissioners also are Republicans with ties to corporate media and/or the Bushes. Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy was a corporate lobbyist before serving on the FCC. Commissioner Kevin Martin served as general counsel for the Bush-Cheney election campaign from 1999-2001, and was a lawyer in the powerful D.C. law firm of Wiley, Rein, and Fielding, which represented corporate communications clients. Martin's boss at the firm was a former FCC member and advocated eliminating media ownership rules.

With these characters in place, the drama began in September 2002, when the FCC had to review its media ownership rules, under a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that requires the Commission to revisit the rules every two years.

Under intense lobbying and pressure from corporate media, Powell revamped the rules to lift the ownership ban. "The public interest works with letting the market work its magic," he said at the time.

According to Robert McChesney's book, The Problem with the Media, Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein fought the rule changes from the get-go, demanding in November 2002 that Powell hold a series of public hearings on the issue throughout the United States. Powell initially refused. "In the digital age, you don't need a 19th-century whistlestop tour to hear from Americans," he told the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable.

Finally, under public pressure, Powell held one hearing in Richmond, Virginia in February 2003. After the panelists industry insiders - spoke for four hours, the public addressed the commissioners: Everyone opposed relaxing the rules.

Twelve more hearings, sponsored by Copps and Adelstein, were held through the first half of 2003; Powell, Abernathy, and Martin attended none of them. Yet, as the Center for Public Integrity disclosed, from September 2002 to April 2003, Powell and other FCC staffers held 71 closed door meetings. Sixty-six of them were with CEOs and lobbyists; five were with public interest groups.

Although the public had been largely shut out of the rule-making process, they did take up Powell on his suggestion to use the Internet to contact the FCC. By the end of the summer, 2.3 million people had contacted the FCC or Congress to oppose the rules.

Yet, by a 3-2 vote, the FCC passed the rules on June 2, 2003, lifting the cross-ownership ban. Unless the courts stop it - in the fall of 2003, the Prometheus Radio Project sued the FCC and the rules are temporarily stymied in a Philadelphia district court - Big Media conglomerates will be able to own daily newspapers, television stations, and radio stations in the same market.

Yet, the public protest was so overwhelming and the grassroots media movement so mobilized, that after the vote, Commissioner Adelstein, one of the dissenters, paraphrased Winston Churchill: "This is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but just the end of the beginning."

(In less poetic terms, Powell contended to the Boston Globe that he represented the apathetic public "who yawn at the whole thing.")

Congress, whose members were hearing from their constituents, was also unhappy with the rules. In the fall, Congress voted to reinstate the 35 percent cap, allowing corporations' stations to reach more than a third of U.S. viewers. However, after Bush threatened to veto the measure, in a back-room deal, the Republican Congressional leadership compromised to 39 percent so that Viacom and News Corp. wouldn't be forced to divest their holdings. The House approved the 39 percent rule; the Senate could vote on it January 31.

As a belated public relations maneuver, Powell named a Localism Task Force to get public input. The Task Force is holding six public hearings about the localism issue: Charlotte, North Carolina was the first stop; San Antonio is the second. The other cities are Santa Cruz, California; Rapid City, South Dakota; Portland, Maine; Washington, D.C.

However, without public input, these hearings can be mere charades. Those who attended the Charlotte meeting reported that corporate representatives and lobbyists claimed most of the seats early in the day, leaving the working public to grab a scant few chairs. With Clear Channel in San Antonio's back yard, activists expect the media conglomerate to use same strategy.

"The concentration of power in the media enables a political clique to concentrate its power," wrote conservative columnist William Safire. "We have to resist this everywhere."

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