Challenges mount to FCC ruling relaxing media ownership
Written by W. Evan Goldner
July - August 2003

Flood of letters, e-mails and phone calls express strong opposition to new rules

On Monday, June 2, the Federal Communications Commission relaxed rules adopted between 1941 and 1975 restricting media ownership. The 3-2 vote along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, came despite hundreds of thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls in opposition from across the political spectrum.

ÒIt is not often that the National Rifle Association and the United Church of Christ are on the same side of an issue,Ó says the Rev. Robert Chase, executive director of the UCC's Office of Communication Inc. ÒIf ownership caps are relaxed,Ó he says, Òair time for diverse, locally-based religious and cultural voices will diminish, washed away in a homogenization of simplistic, lowest common-denominator platitudes.Ó

ÒThis is a direct attack on American democracy,Ó says the Rev. Everett C. Parker, founder of the UCC Office of Communication, who has been following FCC issues for decades. ÒThis is one of the biggest scandals in history, where a government agency violates the public interest and the trust that it is supposed to protect.Ó

In the week before the FCC vote, the NRA and MoveOn.org, an online effort Òto bring ordinary people back into politics,Ó each collected more than 100,000 comments expressing concern about removing media concentration protections.

Under the new rules, the percent of U.S. households a single company may now reach is raised from 35 to 45 percent. In cities with nine or more television stations, all cross-ownership restrictions are now removed, so a company can own both a newspaper and a television station. Some limits would remain in smaller markets but cross-ownership would still not be permitted in markets with three or fewer stations.

A ban on mergers among the four major networks remains in place.

Whose public interest?

In a press statement, FCC Chairman Michael Powell stated that the rule changes strike Òa careful balance that does not unduly limit transactions that promote the public interest, while ensuring that no company can monopolize the medium.Ó

However, the UCC's Chase points out that consolidating technology may not always promote the public interest and give voice to the voiceless. ÒInstead,Ó he says, Òit may be just the opposite: the information divide intensifies and the big get bigger while the small disappear.Ó

ÒSince 1995,Ó he points out, Òthe number of entities owning commercial TV stations has dropped 40 percent; in radio, consolidation is even more dramatic.Ó

In Minot, N.D., last year, when a 31-car train derailment at 1:37 a.m. spewed noxious gas fumes into the air, six of the city's eight radio stations were owned by Clear Channel Communications, with remote programming at nighttime. Through what a police lieutenant calls Òa jumble of mishappenings,Ó officials could not reach anyone at any radio station with the emergency alert system in place at the time. The city's locally ownedand-operated Gospel music AM/FM stations were the only ones able to alert local residents, after their owner, wakened by an outdoor siren, went live on-air to broadcast the news.

Senate action likely

In his statement, Powell said that not making these changes Òis a course that only Congress can chart.Ó

Immediately several lawmakers, including Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) began efforts to reverse the FCC ruling.

ÒA lot of Republicans, in fact probably most of the Republicans in the Congress, would not agree with this decision,Ó Lott said.

Chase points out that free expression is threatened by other media consolidation besides that in broadcasting.

In Phoenix, a group called ÒNo Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice,Ó numbering more than 100 clergy, is committed to promoting full participation on the part of gay and lesbian persons in the church and society, he says. The group attempted to rent billboard space to promote its message, that God loves everyone, including gay persons, but was blocked because only two companies, Viacom and Clear Channel, own Òvirtually allÓ the billboards in the area. Both companies refused to rent No Longer Silent billboard space, declaring its message Òtoo controversial.Ó

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