The FCC's preordained mistake

Dec 23, 2007 1:41 am
From Ryan Blethen in the Seattle Times:
The divergent views of the Republicans and Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission is a startling and yet informative glimpse into how the media cross-ownership ban was obliterated.

The commissioners' opening statements spoke volumes about the deep division at the FCC. The Republicans ­ Kevin Martin, Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell ­ spouted nonsense about multiple platforms providing competition, and how a failing newspaper can be saved by acquiring a broadcast outlet.

The new rule permits a company to own a newspaper and broadcast station in any of the nation's top 20 media markets as long as there are at least eight media outlets in the market. If the combination includes a television station, that station cannot be among the top four in that market. The FCC can grant a waiver to companies that
don't meet the criteria.

The FCC also made permanent 42 waivers, and made it possible for companies outside the top 20 markets to gain cross-ownership waivers. The Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein eloquently spoke about the need to preserve a diversity of voices in a democracy. "Central to our American democracy is a rich and varied supply of
news and information," Adelstein said.

Copps and Adelstein also explained the FCC's horrid process used to review media-ownership rules, which ignored the public's overwhelming support of the cross-ownership ban.

Copps: "Everywhere we go, the questions are the same: Why are we rushing to encourage more media-merger frenzy when we haven't addressed the demonstrated harms caused by previous media-merger frenzy?"

The question begs for an answer. Martin, McDowell and Tate all bragged about the deliberative, thorough and open process the commission embarked upon 18 months ago.

"I believe that the process we have engaged in over the past year and a half has been open, transparent, and thorough ­ a true example of our vibrant democracy at work," said Tate.

Life must be magical in Tate's sunshiny world. How she and McDowell rolled over as Martin continually abused the trust of his colleagues and the public is beyond explanation.

Anybody who pays attention to the FCC or covers it witnessed how Martin sprung proposals and hearings on the commission at the last minute, ignored Congress and the public's shouts to halt media consolidation, and ignored studies he commissioned that did not agree with a preordained outcome.

Adelstein and Copps highlighted in their statements how Martin continued with his cloaked process to the end. Copps said that at 9:44 p.m. Monday he received a revised draft of the proposal. Then at 1:57 a.m. Tuesday, the day of the vote, he was told of more revisions, then at 11:12 a.m. another bunch of changes were e-mailed as he was leaving his office for the vote.

"This is not the way to do rational, fact-based and public interest-minded policymaking," Copps said. "It's actually a great illustration of why administrative agencies are required to operate under the constraints of administrative process ­ and the problems that occur when they ignore that duty. At the end of the day, process matters."

The Republican's insistence that newspapers can only be saved by owning a broadcast outlet added to the unbridgeable gulf between the camps.

McDowell said, "The evidence in the record tells us that if you are under 30, you are probably not reading a traditional newspaper or tuning in to your local broadcasters."

He did not elaborate how a company owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market would convince the under-30 set that they should subscribe to the newspaper or watch television newscasts.

It is encouraging that the FCC is concerned about newspapers. But it's unfortunate it does not realize media consolidation has damaged the industry by making it beholden to the aggressive demands of Wall Street. The rule approved Tuesday will only further drive the press toward corporate journalism.

"Newly merged entities will attempt to increase their profit margins by raising advertising rates and relentless cost-cutting," Copps said. "Herein is the real economic justification for media consolidation within a single market."

At best, the FCC majority was confused by the data, which clearly show the damage done by consolidation. This probably is not the case. I fear that they do understand.
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