FCC Rules Go from Bad to Worse

On Feb. 4, the Federal Communications Commission finally released the details of the devastating rule change it voted on back in December. These new rules would allow one company to own both a major newspaper and a radio or TV station in the same media market – tossing out a ban on “cross-ownership” that has been in place for more than 30 years.

The new rules have gone from bad to worse since FCC Chairman Kevin Martin put forward his proposal in a New York Times op-ed and companion press release. The final published rules amount to wine for Big Media, which will get rich off the public airwaves, and vinegar for the public who will be left with less diversity and competition in their local news.

Waivers Sour the Deal

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Let’s be clear about one thing from the start. Martin wants us to believe that these new rules represent a “modest” relaxation of the longstanding newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban. But there’s nothing modest about this major handout for Big Media. The final text makes clear the extent to which the FCC has abandoned its mission to protect the public interest.

Not content to open the door for massive media consolidation in the future, Martin snuck in a series of controversial waivers that take effect immediately. These waivers amount to a “get out of jail free” card for Gannett and Media General, which have been violating the law for years. In several cases, these companies already own the top-ranked stations in a community. Allowing them to own the daily paper gives them a monopoly over the largest media outlets in a given market. This represents a real threat to the diversity of voices and the quality of the local news in these communities.

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In one fell swoop, the FCC buckled to corporate pressure and gave a big gift to a few politically connected media giants. The fact that the Commission decided to go ahead and waive these properties without even a case-by-case review based on its flimsy new guidelines (editorial independence, financial condition, impact on amount of news in the combo, market concentration) shows that the Commission is not serious about protecting the public interest.

A Rotten Process

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle called on Martin to slow down and account for how these changes would impact local news and female and minority media ownership. Martin refused. “Given that it took the agency over a month to finally release the order, the Commission’s hasty rush to judgment on Dec. 18 is baffling,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press. “Chairman Martin owes an explanation to the members of Congress and groups — liberal and conservative — that urged the FCC to give this critical decision more time.”

Scrambling the night before the vote, Martin left his fellow Commissioners in the dark on major aspects of the new rules. Employing bait-and-switch tactics that have come to define this FCC, Martin portrayed the new rules as a modest change while building in enormous loopholes that put communities across the country at risk of greater media consolidation.

The FCC’s lack of transparency, flawed research and secret timetables have consistently served to silence the public and ignore the concerns of local citizens. Whether tampering with research, announcing public hearings five days before they happen, or policymaking by press release, this FCC has violated the public trust and may have violated the law.

The House of Representatives has launched a full-scale investigation into corruption at the agency. “We have been engaged in internal discussions to try to get our processes back on track,” said Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein in a joint statement. “We wish those discussions had led to better results. At this point, given the lateness of the hour, we hope that either we can turn this around internally, or that Congress can save the FCC from itself.”

Just days prior to the FCC’s vote, a bipartisan group of 26 senators sent a letter to Martin warning that if he proceeded with these changes they would act swiftly to overturn any new rules the FCC established. In the week after the vote, more than 200,000 concerned citizens signed on to an open letter calling on Congress to follow through on that promise. Now that the rules have been published, we’ll be working hard to be sure they do. You can help by signing the letter today and telling your friends.

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