Thursday, October 25, 2007

Meanwhile, at the Federal Communications Commission

An attempt to relax the FCC rules about media concentration in specific markets is once again alive. The FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin wants to get rid of that troublesome 1970s ruling which barred media conglomerates from owning both a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same area. The Nation's Peter Rothberg called Martin's proposal "both a mogul's dream and a citizen's nightmare.":

As my friend and colleague John Nichols wrote last week, "Bush's chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has initiated a scheme to radically rewrite media ownership rules so that one corporation can own the daily newspapers, the weekly 'alternative' newspaper, the city magazine, suburban publications, the eight largest radio stations, the dominant broadcast and cable television stations, popular internet news and calendar sites, billboards and concert halls in even the largest American city."

If all this gives you a feeling of deja vu, you are correct. A similar attempt not that long ago was stopped by an astonishingly bipartisan opposition. This time it is Senators Trent Lott and Byron Dorgan, from different sides of the political aisle, who are opposing this FCC move.

Their reasons are many: The FCC is planning to ram the proposal through from its current beginning to final voting by December. That doesn't give the opposition much time to prepare, does it? Then there is the tiny problem that much of the FCC research in this area has been criticized:

"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.

Dorgan also points out that the FCC's own research shows that further media concentration would cause a net loss in local news coverage.

Then there is the question of female and minority ownership. The FCC apparently hasn't managed to figure out which stations might be owned by the members of those rare and mysterious demographic groups. Why would this matter in the criticisms of the proposal?

I can think of two explanations. The proper one would most likely be the argument that diversity is important for guaranteeing that news of all types get passed on to their final consumers, also a diverse bunch. If Martin gets his way and the media gets more concentrated it might also get a lot less diverse.

The other explanation might be that if we are going to give most of the power in the news industry to a very small group of very rich people we should at least guarantee that Americans of all stripes get a representative in that group. This explanation has the extra merit of pointing out that increased media concentration will benefit one demographic group of Americans over all others: the wealthy ones. It is their judgment of what makes news which will rule in those concentrated media markets, and that is the real flaw in Martin's proposal.
Perhaps cross-posted at TAPPED.