Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Media consolidation seen as ‘almost unAmerican’

COMMENTARY | June 08, 2008

FCC commissioner Adelstein, others attack mergers and express optimism about change in Washington in 2009.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

MINNEAPOLIS—FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Sen.Byron Dorgan (D-ND) expressed optimism about the potential for change in government policy in 2009 when there will be a new Congress and a new president.

The four were among speakers at the three-day National Conference on Media Reform. [Video of speeches by Dan Rather and Bill Moyers and others, and audio of panels are posted here. For additional Nieman Watchdog coverage of the conference, click here and here.]  

“I think this is the time when we can start playing offense,” said Copps.

The public officials blasted what they saw as corrosive effects of media mergers on news coverage, urged protection of so-called Net neutrality, the expansion of low-power FM radio and the creation of a national broadband policy. 

“Media consolidation is against this country’s spirit…It is almost un-American what we’ve allowed to happen,” said Adelstein.

Copps and Adelstein, the FCC’s two Democratic members (there are three Republican members), have been vocal critics of the agency’s relaxation of media ownership rules. FCC’s decision to lift the ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market was condemned in a Senate resolution last month. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has sponsored a similar resolution in the House.

 “Let’s restore ownership limits,” said Dorgan, who introduced the Senate’s “resolution of disapproval.” He criticized the role of a handful of corporations in setting the news agenda,for  infotainment and “junk music.”

Copps blamed the FCC for issuing broadcasting licenses like “candy on Halloween” and called for the return of “public interest guidelines” by which licenses would be reviewed “every three years” instead of the current eight. Since broadcasters use the public airwaves for free, argued Copps, they should be required to prove that they’re serving their local communities—or be punished. “A station on probation will get serious about serving the public interest real damn fast,” he said.

Proponents of low-power FM radio received some qualified good news from Rep. Mike Doyle, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that oversees the FCC.  “Broadcasters are realizing that it is not the most important issue on their list,” he said.  Doyle introduced a bill last year that would increase the number of licenses issued for low-power FM radio stations, which are nonprofit and have a reach of several miles.

The owners of full power stations argue that low power FM causes signal interference but Doyle said research doesn’t bear that out. He also praised the use of low power FM radio during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The Senate version of the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain. There are some 13,000 applications for low power FM radio station licenses at the FCC, according to Adelstein.

Net neutrality—the principle that Internet service providers must not interfere with the applications their customers use or the content transmitted—was touted by all if not always by that name. “I call it ‘Internet freedom’ because I think we talk like twits. We need to come up with better language,” said Dorgan, a co-sponsor of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act.

Adelstein called for the establishment of a “nationwide free broadband service” and suggested that the government could provide some of its own spectrum. A recent study conducted by the OECD placed United States 15th in broadband penetration  among its members, lagging behind countries like Iceland and Canada. Back in 2001, the U.S. ranked 4th and its sliding rating has been attributed to the lack of a national policy and lack of competition.

[Writer Bruce Kushnick has written frequently on broadband for NiemanWatchdog. Click here for a description and links to his articles.]

No matter who captures the White House or Capitol Hill, the speakers urged the crowd to keep the pressure on their public officials so that media reform is at the top of the agenda and implemented. As Copps put it, “It’s not a slam dunk.”

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.