Feeding the Fire – Congress Steps Up to Slow Down the FCC

When news of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plan to push through sweeping changes in media ownership rules broke on Capitol Hill, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) predicted that there would be “a firestorm of protest,” and promised that he “would be carrying the wood.”

He has not had to carry the wood alone, however. A number of members of Congress have stepped forward to feed the fire, each calling on the FCC to rethink their process, listen to the public, and address the paltry state of female and minority ownership before considering any rule changes.

Flaws in the Process

Mere hours after Chairman Martin’s aggressive timeline was uncovered, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined Sen. Dorgan in a joint letter to the FCC calling for a more transparent and open public review of the media ownership rules.

“The FCC should not rush forward and repeat mistakes of the past. We applaud this Commission for its efforts to include the public through a series of hearings around the country,” wrote Sens. Lott and Dorgan. “However, we understand there have been a series of problems with the process, including the selection of study authors, the peer review and the brief length of the studies comment period, which give us additional cause for concern.”

A number of the Congress members who responded to Chairman Martin’s proposed December 18th vote on media ownership rules referred to the crisis of credibility at the FCC. With recent reports of flawed research, agency leaks, and a track record of ignoring public input, policy makers agree that the FCC has a long way to go before they can make reasonable and responsible changes to media ownership rules.

It was not that long ago that the FCC tried a similar move and was rebuked by Congress and the courts. Rep. John Dingell (D-M.I.) referred to this history in his statement. “I urge the Commission not to rush to judgment in its media ownership proceeding. Issues of this magnitude and importance deserve nothing less than the full and measured consideration of the Chairman and Commissioners. The Commission’s last attempt to craft ownership rules was largely invalidated by an appellate court, and the Commission should avoid that outcome in this instance. It is my sincere hope that the Commission will allow reasonable time for evaluation of the public input received on its media ownership studies and at all of its public hearings before finalizing rules.”

Female and Minority Ownership at Stake

Another key concern in the letters and statements that have been circulating from members of the House and Senate has been the Commission’s historic neglect of female and minority ownership. So profound is the agency’s mistreatment of this issue that it was recently revealed that after months of taxpayer-funded research, the FCC still lacks the basic understanding of which stations are actually owned by women and people of color. The FCC’s official media ownership research failed to account for the majority of the female- and minority-owned broadcast stations in America.

In September, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called for the FCC to establish a task force on female and minority ownership to address this and other oversights at the agency before any rule changes are made. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) all have endorsed the creation of a task force in public statements and letters sent to FCC Chairman Martin.

This week, Sen. Barack Obama (D-I.L.) also released a statement calling on the FCC to further study the impact of media consolidation on minority ownership before moving forward with any rule changes. “I believe both the proposed timeline and process are irresponsible,” wrote Sen. Obama in a statement on his Web site. “Minority owned and operated newspapers and radio stations play a critical role in the African American and Latino communities and bring minority issues to the forefront of our national discussion. However, the Commission has failed to further the goals of diversity in the media and promote localism, and as a result, it is in no position to justify allowing for increased consolidation of the market.”

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-I.L.) went even further this week when he asserted that the FCC “simply doesn’t care” about female and minority ownership.

A Life or Death Issue

Rev. Jesse Jackson recently called media ownership a life or death issue. Hip Hop legend KRS-One called media ownership a public health issue. This characterization was echoed in the statement released this week by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-D.E.) who warned of the dangerous consequences of Chairman Martin’s plan to relax media ownership rules.

“The Federal Communications Commission’s plan to lift its anti-monopoly regulations could have dangerous consequences,” said Sen. Biden. “If this plan goes forward, two or three media conglomerates could end up controlling every broadcast medium in the country. From a safety perspective, what happens if one company controls the television, radio and internet services in a region and its servers go down during a natural disaster or terrorist attack? From a constitutional perspective, what happens when one company owns all of the airwaves in an area and it refuses to broadcast certain content? These are important security and constitutional issues best addressed by keeping the current rules in place.”

Is your member of Congress mentioned here? If not, click here to demand they take action to hold the FCC accountable. We’ll update the comments section of this post as more members of Congress speak up.

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