A day in Bizarro World? Not exactly. The all-too-real scenario is the response to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) controversial decision to relax limits on broadcast ownership, giving those who now control a large portion of the airwaves an even larger share. Among other changes, the FCC let companies raise their national TV presence from 35 to 45 percent of viewers and own newspapers and TV stations in the same market.
A divided FCC voted 3-2 for the changes on June 2, with the Republican majority besting the two Democratic commissioners who opposed the new regulations. Prior to the vote, hundreds of thousands of Americans had filed comment with the FCC, voicing concern that the new rules would lead to too many media outlets in the hands of too few owners.
Louisiana's influential Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Gambit Weekly he doesn't think the cross-ideological outcry demonstrates broad national opposition ("Broadcast Blues," June 10), but instead reflects misinformation about the issue. As Tauzin sees it, the FCC decision protects the First Amendment because it gives everyone -- not just media giants such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and the Walt Disney Co., who lobbied for the changes -- a chance to speak to more than 35 percent of the public. "If I were a media company or a political candidate," he says, "I would want to speak to 100 percent of the market."
Tauzin's logic, if one could call it that, is deeply flawed. For starters, there's nothing to stop anyone from trying to talk to 100 percent of the market right now. The issue isn't about reaching the market, it's about controlling the market by owning too much of the media.
The new regulations unquestionably will foster media consolidation -- a trend that has reduced competition among media outlets and helped homogenize news and entertainment nationwide. Cities that once had two or three daily newspapers today have just one; newsrooms have consolidated and pared down coverage of local events; radio stations have been gobbled up by national corporations that don't necessarily care if listeners in New Orleans have different tastes than those in New Jersey.
Now, the FCC says, it's TV's turn. The commission drafted the changes after courts ordered it to justify its 35-percent rule, and after the Congressional Telecommunications Act of 1996 ordered it to review its regulations every two years and modify those rules deemed obsolete. Broadcast ownership regulations, argue Tauzin and FCC chairman Michael Powell, became obsolete when new technologies -- the Internet and satellite and cable channels -- created new media outlets.
We disagree. Even with more cable channels and Web sites, consolidation remains a danger. In addition, we object strenuously to the way the FCC handled this landmark issue. Powell insisted the proposed rule changes stay out of the public eye before the vote; the public comments to the FCC were based on information leaked to the media. The FCC's two Democrats -- Michael Copps (a former Loyola University history professor) and Jonathan Adelstein -- had lobbied to hold public forums and to delay the vote, if only for one month. Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, rejected their requests. This is not the way the FCC should decide a wide-ranging policy change that has the force of law and cannot be easily reversed. The proposed changes should be presented to the public for scrutiny, comment and debate well in advance of any vote.
The national media share some of the blame for the lack of public debate. Broadcast media largely ignored the proposed changes -- the story was told mainly in print. "This shows the need to have a diverse media," says Larry Lorenz, a Loyola journalism professor.
In its June 2 vote, the commission did maintain some restraints on broadcast ownership. It upheld a rule preventing one of the four major networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox -- from buying another network. And it actually tightened radio broadcast regulations in response to the criticism aimed at Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based company that jumped from 43 stations to more than 1,250 after radio ownership was deregulated with the 1996 Telecom Act. The "Clear Channelization" of America has been offered as an example of what is to come if the FCC's television broadcast rules remain in place.
The new regulations relaxing ownership rules face congressional challenges in both houses. Tauzin pledges to go to the mat for the new rules, and is joined in support of the FCC by Democratic Sen. John Breaux. U.S. Rep. Chris John, D-Crowley, is among the principal supporters of a bill to fight the changes.
We hope the FCC will bring the new regulations back to the drawing board, and we urge our representatives to support legislation requiring further review and comment.