I've been having this strong feeling of déjà vu lately. Three years ago, the Federal Communications Commission set out to deregulate media ownership and met with the protests of 3 million people. A federal court stopped the FCC in its tracks, just as Congress was voting to halt the commission's new rules.
Now it's happening again. In June, the FCC announced a review of the ownership rules limiting the number of broadcast outlets a single company can own--in other words, it announced that it will allow more media consolidation. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is part of a Republican majority on the commission. He's an attorney from Charlotte who was educated at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. But what you really need to know about Martin is summed up in a picture in Details magazine this month. Accompanying a story about "mavericks who are secretly controlling your life" is a posed photo of Martin on an unmade hotel bed beside a media executive and an industry lobbyist. I kid you not.
Meanwhile, another important event is repeating itself: A grassroots movement is growing among individual people and public interest groups from all over the political spectrum. Last time, we won.
Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, who make up the Democratic minority, oppose further media consolidation and have advocated for network neutrality protections to ensure equal access for everyone on the Web. Now they're calling on the FCC to release the specific rule changes being considered--as it stands, we don't even know exactly what the FCC's plans are, only which rules are "under review." Martin has resisted, but the Senate Commerce Committee recently voted on a bipartisan basis to order the FCC to do exactly that.
Copps and Adelstein have also called for public hearings--to be held outside of Washington, D.C.--to gather comments about how media ownership affects the quality of news coverage in local communities. Martin agreed to six FCC-sponsored hearings. Meanwhile, Copps, Adelstein and public interest groups Free Press and Consumer's Union (who oppose further media concentration) are hosting their own unofficial gatherings across the country, inviting a panel of local media representatives and community leaders to speak and giving everyone in attendance the chance to submit a public statement to the FCC.
The first Town Hall Meeting on the Future of Media was June 28 in Asheville and drew more than 400 people. Among them were at least 11 people from the Triangle, a vanpool that included cable access volunteers from the Raleigh Television Network and Peoples Channel in Chapel Hill.
The commissioners stayed in the auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College from 6 until 11:30 p.m. to hear comments from approximately 100 people: high school students, senior citizens, teachers, public access TV producers, Christian ministers who broadcast on micro-radio stations, minority advocates upset by local media coverage. Their overwhelming message was: Don't do it!
Unfortunately, Martin wasn't present. It's widely believed that he will eventually seek office in North Carolina, and the choice to hold the first hearing in Asheville felt like an effort to hold his feet to the fire.
In an interview before the hearing, Copps said he hopes all of his colleagues will attend in the future and that the hearings will help penetrate the Beltway bubble inhabited by lobbyists and corporate interests. "We're here in Asheville to see what the residents of this part of the country think about their media. Are they getting the kind of local coverage they want, coverage of community events, vibrant political dialogue? Are they getting unique entertainment rather than some homogenized, often vulgarized fare coming from corporate headquarters 1,000 miles away?"
In 2003, a hearing like this took place at Duke Law School, with Copps, Adelstein and representatives from local newspapers and radio and television stations--and hundreds of Triangle residents eager to air their complaints about the quality of local coverage. A few months later, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Prometheus v. FCC that the changes went too far, and the court sent those rules back to the commission for revision.
"We're facing the same issues, but from a whole different world," Adelstein said before the Asheville hearing began. "Now we've had the public mobilized and essentially irritated by what happened." He says public attention is more intense this time around. "The backlash this time will be even bigger, because it will build on all the concern that was raised last time."
The biggest change since 2003 shows how much more there is at stake. The Internet has gone essentially unregulated since its inception, but now the absence of public policy protections are threatening its future. In the background of this battle over newspapers, radio and television is a bare-knuckled brawl between a coalition of groups supporting network neutrality, which would keep content separate from the operation of Internet service, and the phone and cable companies that want to create an information super-tollway that offers higher speed connections to their own sites.
"If you don't like what was visited on media consolidation, you're not going to like what's coming on the Internet if some of these big providers and distributors get their way," Copps said. "They want to control the network and the content, and that's how big media got so huge, controlling not just the distribution but the production."
The Triangle contingent took their turns at the mic. Angela Carter of Raleigh expressed her concern about the synergistic promotions of corporate-owned media. "I like having more news stations," Carter said. "I don't like having them all cover the same stories over and over and over. I like having more channels to chose from; I don't need to see more reruns of Law & Order. That's what happens when the same companies own all of these stations."
Jerry Markatos, founder of the local discussion group Balance and Accuracy in Journalism, discussed the effect that lack of diverse ownership has on the news. "Inevitably, a good reporter serving the public interest will step on some toes--sometimes the toes of powerful interests represented on the board of the paper. A decade or two ago, a good reporter whose job was threatened by this could go and work for the newspaper or broadcast station across the street. Today, there's no longer a newspaper across the street," he said. "It should be clear by now that further media consolidation takes us away from real public service and away from the local strengths, traditions and rich diversity of this country."
One of the biggest rules at stake is the ban on cross-ownership, which currently prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and radio or television stations in the same town. Gannett, for instance, the largest newspaper chain in the country, also owns 22 television stations in the country; its lobbyists are trying to get the cross-ownership ban lifted.
Asheville Citizen-Times president and publisher Virgil Smith defended Gannett, the newspaper's owner. "Common ownership enhances coverage without compromising the editorial independence of the newspaper," Smith said. "It would open up a multitude of opportunities for additional news and information products to be provided to consumers."
But the good people of Asheville were having none of it.
"I'm not sure what the terms 'big media' and 'media conglomerate' mean," Smith said. "The Citizen-Times is owned by the Gannett company.... Does this mean that the Citizen-Times is part of big media?" he asked.
To which the crowd rumbled back, "Yes."
"Does it mean that the local needs of residents in our area are not being met by the Citizen-Times?" Again, a collective "yes" followed.
"Does it mean that editorial policy and the stories we cover are dictated by overriding company policy or philosophy emanating from McLean, Va.?" A louder "yes."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Smith said without missing a beat, "you're wrong."
Ken Salyer, vice president of Clear Channel Asheville, excused himself for his mountain accent and for not having a degree "from Harvard or Yale." He said the 85 employees at Clear Channel Asheville contribute time and energy to local charities, including a DJ who spent 54 hours in a company van suspended from a crane to raise money for Toys for Tots. "One year Chuck was so sick with the flu he could barely make it to the Ingles parking lot. But he went up because he cared, because thousands of deserving children were depending on him. That's the kind of dedication that I see every day. That's local radio. That's Clear Channel Asheville."
Countering that was Jim Goodmon of Raleigh, owner of Capitol Broadcasting and WRAL, who matched Salyer's Carolina accent vowel for vowel. "Clear Channel didn't want to own these stations in Asheville so it could do 'Tools for Schools.' It wanted to own these stations because it could make so much darn money at it." The audience applauded. Salyer's face turned bright red.
Goodmon is a big fish in the Triangle but miniscule in comparison to Viacom and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which own CBS and FOX. Those companies would love to get their hands on his two network-affiliate stations, WRAL and WRAZ. He has testified before Congress against loosening ownership rules several times in the past three years. "The big media companies, and there's really not that many of them now, want to own all that they can own. It's as simple as that," he said.
"This is a fight--don't be nice about this," Goodmon added. "The other side is not nice about this. I will go in to lobby and there'll be 12 lobbyists behind me. They want these stations so they can make more money. This is about money. This is not about serving anybody's community or localism or local autonomy."
The FCC will be taking public comment on media ownership rules through mid-October. To file a comment to the public record, visit www.fcc.gov/cgb/ecfs.