Democracy The uprising

The Right and the Left agree on one thing: The FCC rules suck

Last June, Chairman Michael Powell and his Republican colleagues at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expected to discreetly pass new rules on lifting limits on media ownership. Instead, Powell's tactics triggered what media scholar Robert McChesney calls the "Uprising of 2003."

"Nothing less than democracy is at stake," says Russell Newman, research coordinator for the Free Press, explaining why groups from the National Organization of Women to the National Rifle Association oppose the new rules.

Historically, the FCC has imposed rules on broadcast media to serve democracy's need for diverse viewpoints. These rules have come in two forms: content and ownership. For example, the Fairness Doctrine, a content rule, required broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on important public issues. Since these rules affected content, they were difficult to enforce. In the 1980s, broadcasters challenged the constitutionality of content rules in court, successfully arguing that they violated the First Amendment.

With content rules gutted, Big Media shifted their focus to the structural rules, which limited media ownership. Corporate interests won their first major victory with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which lifted the cap on the number of radio stations a company could own. Powell and the Republican commissioners handed Big Media their second major victory when they changed the ownership rules with little public input in 2003.

But Powell's maneuvers at the FCC provoked a political tempest of criticism and backlash. Most dramatically, the Senate exercised a rarely used power, voting 55-45 for a "Resolution of Disapproval" that repealed the rules passed by the FCC. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson supported the repeal; Senator John Cornyn opposed it. Although 200 representatives signed a letter to the House leadership requesting that the resolution be brought to the floor, the House refused, leaving the resolution to languish. Of a the San Antonio-area representatives, only Ciro Rodriguez signed the letter.

So Powell has a new political strategy: Seek public input, but divide the opposition by shifting the debate away from media ownership and toward impossible-to-enforce content rules. That is why he created the "Localism" Task Force rather than an "Ownership" Task Force, to hold six FCC public hearings across the nation. Newman explained, "What's happening at these meetings is that they are trying to turn the tables. As of June 2, Powell is saying we're going to get rid of media ownership regulations, and put back in place public interest obligations, which are virtually impossible to enforce."

"Right now, with little diversity in media ownership, we see pervasive stereotypes of Arabs. If ownership gets more concentrated, it will only get worse."
Nichole Betters,
Arab International Women's Association

By diverting attention away from media ownership, Powell hopes to split off some socially conservative groups, such as the Parents Television Council, from the broader coalition. These organizations joined the coalition opposing the FCC rules, not because of issues with media ownership, but due to concerns about the prevalence of sex and violence on TV.

But the resistance to increasing media concentration will not be so easily diluted. Many groups - from the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center to the AFL-CIO - are organizing to attend the January 28 FCC hearing and to speak out against the impact of media concentration on their communities. "The media plays such an important role in forming people's perceptions. And right now, with little diversity in media ownership, we see pervasive stereotypes of Arabs," explains Nicole Betters, spokesperson for the Arab International Women's Association. "If ownership gets more concentrated, it will only get worse."

Grassroots media activists find the dichotomy between ownership and localism to be false. "You cannot talk about localism without talking about media concentration," says Luis Figueroa, former San Antonian and current policy analyst at the Consumers Union in Washington, D.C. "How Latinos are portrayed in the media is determined by those who own it. That's why it's important for the Latino community to get into this media ownership battle. It's more difficult to challenge the racial stereotypes when it's huge conglomerates repeating them over and over. If it's just a local owner, the community could hold them more accountable."