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Editorial: FCC, Powell Must Bring the Public Into the Process

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell insists on pushing ahead at full speed in the high-stakes battle over media ownership regulations. He appears to be resisting even the most reasonable pleas for more public involvement in the process. His actions give the impression that he has already made up his mind about deregulation.
Mr. Powell wrote a letter last week to a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., which has joined forces with the Office of Advocacy of the Small Business Administration to urge the FCC to make room in its regulatory review process for public comment. Mr. Powell scoffed at the suggestion that he give the public more information and opportunity for input: “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.”
Just what Mr. Powell considers the “pitfalls” of allowing the public into the process is unclear. If deregulation is in the public interest, as Mr. Powell evidently believes, it can’t hurt to give it a good airing. If, on the other hand, the public might be harmed by the sweeping deregulation that is being planned primarily behind closed doors, then it is even more critical that the public be informed and be invited to participate.
Barry Diller added his formidable voice to the debate a couple of weeks ago at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. The chairman and CEO of USA Interactive made headlines at the conference when he delivered an impassioned plea not only to preserve ownership limits but also to bring back something resembling fin-syn, the financial interest and syndication rules that once restricted networks’ ownership of their programming.
The FCC’s critics have reason to be alarmed. The consolidation express has been chugging along at a pretty fast clip as it is, but Mr. Powell, an outspoken critic of media regulations, appears determined to clear any remaining obstacles from the tracks. The not-so-hidden agenda of his sweeping review of media rules includes the likely elimination of a variety of important safeguards against unrestrained media power, notably duopoly restrictions, the ban on newspaper-television cross-ownership and caps limiting the total reach of stations each large media concern can own.
The rules should not be changed or modified without further public airing. Holding tight to June 2 as the date to adopt new and final regulations is speeding ahead much too rapidly. While the business world has changed, some things remain the same: Big companies are less likely to be interested in local issues. They are less susceptible to pressure from consumers. They tend to buy programming that plays across all markets rather than targeting specific programs based on the demographics and interests of particular markets. The bigger the company, the less likely it is to be an independent voice that makes highly individual choices based on what is best for the local market.
In the end, it may be inevitable that large companies will dominate every aspect of the media. But before that scenario becomes public policy, hearings should be held across the country and more studies should be done in markets where duopolies already exist and in those where cross-media ownership restrictions have been waived. Unlike Chairman Powell, we believe more input is needed to make an informed decision that will serve the interests of all citizens.
We urge Mr. Powell and the FCC to put a stop to the backdoor maneuvering and bring the public into the process. It would be most unfortunate to rush to judgment at this critical juncture for the media industry. It is time to put on the brakes until we fully understand the implications of further loosening these regulations designed to keep the marketplace open to players of all sizes, and ensure that democracy can thrive and many diverse voices can be heard.