Thursday, November 8, 2007

FCC Gets Heat From Senate

Today's Senate Commerce Commitee hearings on media ownership, localism and diversity found several Senators stepping up the anti-consolidation rhetoric. Can a showdown with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin be far off?

The hearing's biggest announcement was that of legislation to impede the Martin's mad dash to alter current media ownership rules. This bi-partisan effort, which has been given the catchy title "Media Ownership Act of 2007,” is co-sponsored by Senators Snowe, Obama, Kerry, Feinstein, Nelson and Cantwell. The proposed bill compels the FCC to hold separate proceedings on localism, as well implement a task force to look into issues of minority and female ownership before attempting to alter existing structures. In addition, the legislation introduces a 90-day public comment period on any proposed rule changes.

We at FMC think this is excellent news. However, given the FCC's poor track record of actually completing assigned research, there may be need of further Congressional (and perhaps Court) intervention. According to research by Free Press, the FCC has never produced accurate documentation of existing minority broadcast licenses. Can we actually expect them to take the proposed ownership task force seriously?

Back to the hearing. Several Senators spoke in no uncertain terms about the consequences of further consolidation, with Dorgan referring to the "galloping concentration" of media outlets as being "quite unhealthy." The general consensus was that they’d been here before with the FCC -- specifically in 2003, when then-Chairman Michael Powell made a similar rule-change attempt. Senator Kerry made reference to the deja-vu nature of the current proceedings, calling them "a little like Groundhog Day." Legislators seemed in agreement that Martin is rushing things. Said Dorgan, "The Chair is not in a position to credibly suggest that we need a vote by December."

Of the panel of witnesses, Seattle Times publisher Frank A. Blethen made the most compelling argument in favor of localism and diversity. He claimed that localism has all but been abandoned by Congress and the FCC, saying that the big media conglomerates no longer "invest in journalism," to the detriment of civic comprehension. He also countered conventional wisdom about the newspaper industry, stating that traditional press is still profitable. Yet Blethen also told Congress that "the only way to save local papers is to stop the FCC from relaxing ownership rules." In addition to maintaining the current cross-ownership caps, he urged lawmakers to create incentives for greater minority ownership.

All in all, it was a smashing day for supporters of localism and diversity in media. Let's hope the FCC gets the message.

Watch the an archived webcast of the hearing here.

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