It was an inspiring sight. Outside Federal Communications Commission headquarters more than a hundred and fifty people were chanting for better media. Inside, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin squirmed every time the room erupted around calls to stop consolidation. It was Halloween at the FCC – and the trick was definitely on them.
Rallying on the Steps of the FCC
Citizens — some of whom had shown up at 4 a.m. to get in line for a chance to speak — crowded the sidewalk of the FCC for a Halloween-morning rally against media consolidation. Elected officials, civil rights and labor leaders, consumer and media reform advocates, activists and even a squad of cheerleaders all came out to urge the federal agency to stop any rule changes that could create more media consolidation.
|Commissioner Adelstein Speaks to the Crowd|
Chairman Martin announced the Halloween hearing just a week beforehand and scheduled it during the day when most people couldn’t attend. This was just the most recent in a long line of barriers the FCC has thrown up to deter public involvement in media policymaking. In response, public interest and civil rights groups pulled together to organize a rally where the public’s voice couldn’t be ignored.
“We are gravely concerned that Chairman Martin would try to secretly move on such a critical issue with such a short timetable,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, which coordinates the StopBigMedia.com Coalition. “The public is being shut out of the process so that Martin can move forward with his Big Media giveaway.”
|The FCC Cheerleaders|
This sentiment was echoed by FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein in a joint statement about the hearing: “Neither we nor the public received any confirmation that the hearing would occur until … just 5 business days before the event. This is unacceptable and unfair to the public.”
Wednesday’s rally was reminiscent of the outcry that erupted in 2003 – the last time the FCC tried to push through sweeping media ownership rule changes. People came representing a broad spectrum of issues from civil rights and women’s rights to labor and hip-hop.
“We have a media diversity crisis — too few, own too much, at the expense of too many,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
|Rally for a Better Media|
Kim Gandy, president of NOW, said: “Despite the fact that together we represent two-thirds of the country, women and people of color are woefully under-represented in media ownership. Massive consolidation and market concentration is one of the key factors keeping this vital population from access to the public airwaves.”
Members of the local faith community also turned out to call on the FCC to stop Big Media. “God has supplied the airwaves as a gift to all humankind,” said Rev. James Coleman, president of the missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C. “He requires of us to be good stewards over the airwaves and ensure that media reflects in a balanced fashion the views, opinions and ethnic values of all segments of society.”
|Rev. Jesse Jackson|
Bombshell Study Destroys Argument for Consolidation
As the rally wrapped up, the crowd filed inside to take their message directly to the commissioners. The FCC’s public hearing room was packed, and person after person spoke up against media consolidation. Of the dozens of people who spoke at the hearing, all but four challenged the FCC’s rush toward relaxing media ownership rules. The public testimony was complemented by a powerful list of panelists.
Martin, Copps and Adelstein closely questioned S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, after his testimony — which used the FCC’s own data to show that allowing one company to own both the major daily newspaper and broadcast outlets in the same market diminishes local news coverage.
Martin has called for the removal of a longstanding ban on “newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.” But Turner’s research refutes claims that consolidation creates more news. Copps called Turner’s findings “a bombshell.”
|Rev. Lennox Yearwood|
The hearing in Washington was the last of six official public hearings on localism originally proposed by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2003. Hundreds of people attended, despite the fact that the hearing wasn’t announced until the night of Oct. 24 and neither the Washington Post nor any of the local TV affiliates of the major networks covered the event in advance.
“Sadly, in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the number of good broadcasters is diminishing, and the number of mediocre broadcasters is increasing,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of Media Access Project. “The intensity of public concern about this is something the Commission should not and cannot ignore. Despite obvious attempts to minimize public attendance at events such as this, thousands of Americans have shown up to tell you how much they care.”
The broad coalition that defeated efforts to gut media ownership rules in 2003 showed that they’re dedication to the issue hasn’t diminished over the past four years. “There is no question that the consolidation of media outlets has led to a coarsening of television content,” testified Dan Isset of the Parents Television Council. “Clearly, owners with ties to a community are in a much better position to determine the public interest of those they serve and whose airwaves they are allowed to broadcast upon. When local programming decisions are prohibited by a remote corporate parent, the public interest is not served.”
|Inside the Hearing|
As in the recent ownership hearing in Chicago, the FCC’s shameful lack of attention to female and minority ownership and media justice took center stage. The disgracefully low level of media ownership by women and people of color was raised by numerous panelists, who criticized the Commission for failing to address this crucial issue before changing any media ownership rules. Lisa Fager Bediako, president of Industry Ears, said that “women of color, people of color are treated as if they are invisible, unimportant, a last thought” by the media.
“We believe that media diversity is a civil rights issue,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “As consolidation grows, localism suffers and diversity dwindles. Local ownership of broadcast outlets means better coverage for the communities they serve. Yet even in our nation’s capital, it is difficult to find newspaper, television and radio content that accurately showcases the breadth and diversity of our unique version of the American experience.”
Over but not Done
While this was the last of the FCC’s localism hearings, it won’t be the last of localism. The day after the rally and hearing, the Senate Commerce Committee announced that they were holding a hearing on localism and media ownership on Nov. 8. Responding to the flawed process at the FCC, Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), and Daniel Innoye (D-Hawaii) are increasing the pressure on Martin to serve the public interest, not rush another massive giveaway to Big Media.