SAN FRANCISCO, April 29-A visit from Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein on Saturday brought a standing-room only crowd to City Hall for a hearing on pending FCC changes to media ownership rules.
The public hearing, sponsored by San Francisco advocacy group Media Alliance, the University of San Francisco, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, drew a passionate, over-capacity audience that expressed anger over the prospect of media-industry deregulation.
Such concern is what initially spurred the grassroots organization of the meeting, which was not an official government event.
“We decided to do this because the FCC is not doing it,” said Dorothy Kidd, the hearing moderator and an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco.
Attendees found an ally in Adelstein, a Democrat who has spoken out against moves to loosen regulation of the media business.
“The FCC is about to make historic changes to media ownership rules and that’ll affect each of us as media viewers and listeners,” he said. “We at the FCC are responsible for overseeing the airwaves in your interests, not in the interests of corporations … I’m afraid we’re about to forget that.”
Oversight and review
Current rules prohibit television companies from owning newspapers or radio stations in the same communities, or from one company owning more than 35 percent of all local broadcast stations in the nation.
They also prohibit the major broadcast networks from merging, and limit the mergers of television stations at the local level.
The FCC, created in 1934, oversees radio, television, satellite, cable, and broadband industries.
Because the airwaves are considered public property, the commission is charged with regulating the industries in the public interest.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act calls for a review of the ownership rules every two years, to assess how well regulations are keeping pace with technology and market practices.
So far, the FCC has received an unprecedented 18,000 comments from the public on the upcoming vote.
Despite this high level of interest and the impact the rule changes could have, the FCC held only one official public hearing, on February 27 in Richmond, Virginia.
FCC Chair Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has refused to hold more hearings around the country, saying there has been ample time to inform the public and receive feedback.
“I firmly believe, based on where the Commission is today, that further and more specific notice is unwarranted in light of the full record before us, and weighed against the pitfalls of further delay,” he wrote.
This prompted activists to plan hearings on the subject.
Their efforts resulted in a series of sessions in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, North Carolina and Seattle, often with commissioners Adelstein or Michael Copps as the star attraction.
Although he’s attended a number of such hearings around the country, Adelstein said that “not one person from the public says, ‘I want more concentrated media ownership.”
Powell, a Clinton appointee in 1998, has long been an advocate for eliminating restrictions on media ownership, stating that the regulations were from “the days of yesteryear,” and that “I start with the proposition that the rules are no longer necessary and demand that the Commission justify their continued validity.”
Powell now presides over a three-two Republican-majority commission, and has vowed to complete the biennial review of these rules by June 2.
Many observers have predicted the review will bring sweeping reductions of media ownership caps.
Attendees at the San Francisco hearing included advocacy-group representatives, labor organizers, academics, broadcasters, and newspaper and Internet publishers.
Opponents fear that of deregulation will make broadcasting giants like Disney (owner of ABC), Viacom (owner of CBS) and Fox even more influential.
But despite the high stakes, Bay Area and national journalists were notably absent from the proceedings.
“I don’t think ever in the history of the Federal Communication Commission — 70 years — has a Federal Communications Commissioner come to hear from the people of this city about an issue that affects them on this level … Yet it’s going largely unnoticed by the media,” Adelstein said.
The only major commercial Bay Area broadcaster present was KRON-TV, which both testified at the event and covered it.
“If we permit the networks to purchase more local stations, our broadcast system will become much more about the network’s bottom line and much less about the particular concerns of local communities,” said KRON president and general manager Dino Dinovitz told the audience.
The former NBC-affiliate in the Bay Area, KRON was purchased in 1999 by the New York-based Young Broadcasting company. It has been considered something of a maverick station after management declined to pay high fees demanded by NBC and subsequently lost network affiliation.
Kevin Keeshan, news director at ABC-affiliated KGO-TV, said the lack of coverage was a question of priorities. Citing “limited resources,” he said that his news team “had other stories to cover that day.”
Though Keeshan declined to be interviewed, he commented that the FCC ruling would have “no effect at all” on the news operations at KGO.
CBS affiliate KPIX-TV spokesperson Akilah Monifa said that due to sweeps, no one was available to comment on the station’s lack of coverage.
Locals radio station KPFA (Pacifica) and KPOO broadcast the entire hearing, and cable access television also covered the event.
Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner published announcements or previews of the hearing, but made no mention afterwards.
Many at the San Francisco hearing said their worst fears are exemplified by the deregulation of the radio industry in 1996, which eliminated caps on the number of radio stations one entity can own.
Clear Channel Communications used that opportunity to expand from 40 stations to 1,200, but the critics say the company’s cutthroat business practices resulted in the loss of jobs, local news coverage and diminished radio diversity nationwide.
Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, spoke at the hearing, stating that Clear Channel employs only 200 people.
“There’s no way a radio station can be actively and locally run by one-tenth of a human being,” he said. Instead, the corporation reportedly uses pre-taped DJs and remote-controlled computers to create the illusion of local programming.
Bagdikian said the dangers of such consolidation are exemplified by a January 2002 train accident that caused a cloud of toxic anhydrous ammonia fertilizer to threaten the town of Minot, North Dakota.
All six of Minot’s commercial radio stations are owned by Clear Channel, and police were unable to reach a human being at the emergency broadcast station to issue a warning to the town. The New York Times reported on March 31 that 300 people were hospitalized and one died as a result.
Other speakers at the hearing said that consolidation of the television and newspaper industries will be similarly destructive, and that monopolized marketplaces will diminish the diversity and quality of journalism, drive up costs for advertisers and shut out voices that disagree with corporate interests.
More than a few people were angry that the FCC seems to be acting with corporate interests in mind, rather than the public’s.
“Chairman Powell said that media mergers make business more efficient,” said 80-year old Helen Callbeck of the Media Democracy Task Force. “That’s not the business of the FCC.”
Her comments provoked a standing ovation.
Media Alliance Executive Director Jeff Perlstein believes the growing public outcry can sway the June 2 vote of the commission.
“We can affect the breadth of the decision, the strength of the decision,” by heightening public pressure on Congress and the commissioners, he said.
He thinks Chairman Powell has already bowed to public pressure, and will likely propose less dramatic changes than previously planned.
“There are six rules that are under review, and while the chairman espouses this very extreme free market policy, it looks like as a result of pressure already, he won’t be able to push all six to what he initially intended,” Perlstein said.
While no draft of the proposed rule changes will be made public until after the vote, Chairman Powell has recently softened his public stance.
“I am concerned about the concentration, particularly in radio,” he told the Senate Commerce Committee in January.
Powell said he wanted to avoid a television-industry reenactment of the Clear Channel takeover, and pointed out that any media mergers would have to meet anti-trust requirements.
Deregulation opponents intend to continue being a thorn in Powell’s side, with another hearing schedule May 12 in San Rafael, California, ongoing letter-writing campaigns to Congress and the FCC, and renewed efforts to raise the issue’s profile.
“The only way they can move this is without public scrutiny,” said Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a project coordinator at the Independent Press Association. “It’s a really blatant case of government cutting a deal for big business against the public interest. To the extent that we can make this a public issue … we can certainly limit the amount of damage we’re going to take in this round.”
On Monday, Powell told attendees at the Newspaper Association of America convention in Seattle that deregulation would improve broadcast news coverage, by allowing newspapers to own TV and radio outlets.
London’s Financial Times newspaper published an interview with Powell on Tuesday, where he stated that “free to air” broadcast television might be endangered by competition from cable and satellite TV, unless deregulation permits further consolidation.
Last week the Bush administration spoke up on the issue. Reuters reported that, in a letter to the FCC, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans stated that the commission has enough evidence supporting deregulation, and urged a vote by June 2.