The FCC did not listen to the American people, but the Senate Commerce Committee did.
Prodded by thousands of e-mails, letters and petitions from Americans angered by the June 2 decision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to loosen media ownership rules, the Senate Commerce Committee voted on June 19 to restore the rules and to change the commission's behind-closed-doors, special-interest- driven way of doing business. "The people won today -- this is a huge blow to big media conglomerates," said Consumers Union's director of advocacy and public policy Gene Kimmelman.
What the people won, with solid support from Democrats and key Republicans on the committee, was a legislative package that seeks to:
* Prevent a single media corporation from buying up television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's households. Under pressure from media giants such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Fox networks, and Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UBN networks, the FCC had voted to lift the ownership cap to 45 percent. (And because UHF stations count as only half a station, a carryover from the pre-cable days when those stations' weaker signals hurt reception, the actual percentage of the nation reached could shoot well over 60 or 70 percent.)
* Limit the ability of individual media corporations to buy up daily newspapers and television and radio stations in local markets. By restoring key aspects of the old "newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership" rule, the committee made it harder for the Gannett, Tribune, Clear Channel and Knight-Ridder media corporations to gain control of most media in a community, and then create a single newsroom to feed one-size-fits-all news to newspaper readers, as well as radio listeners and television viewers. (This particular aspect of the legislation still needs to be strengthened, however, in order to assure that a loophole allowing for some cross-ownership in the smallest 60 of the 210 designated media markets.)
* Remove an exemption that would have allowed radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel and Infinity, to maintain control of radio stations in markets where they are in violation of ownership caps. Sponsored by Commerce Committee chair John McCain (R-Ariz.), this measure could result in Clear Channel being forced to sell off many of its more than 1,200 radio stations.
* Force the FCC to open up its decision-making process by holding at least five official public hearings, at locations around the country, before changing media ownership rules. This is a clear rebuke to FCC chair Michael Powell, who allowed only one official public hearing before the June 2 vote.
* Signal that Congress wants the FCC to consider not just proposals to loosen ownership rules that are promoted by big media corporations, but also steps to strengthen and broaden limits on consolidation and monopoly. This is a message to the federal courts that Congress wants them to define the public interest more broadly, rather than simply pressuring the FCC to ease ownership rules. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this measure for the future. Michael Powell's lame defense of his corrupt relaxation of media ownership rules was "the courts made me do it." Now that Washington, D.C. equivalent of "the dog ate my homework" will not cut the mustard.
Describing the FCC rules changes as "dangerous to media diversity in this country," Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson summed up the sentiments of many members of the committee when she said, "I would like the FCC to start all over."
The committee session on June 19 was in stark contrast to the FCC meeting June 2. For one thing, the fix was not in. No one knew exactly what form the proposed "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Act of 2003" (S. 1046) would take. At least 18 amendments were put forward to the core measure, which was sponsored by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Since June 2, more than 300,000 Americans have contacted members of Congress to urge a reversal of the rule changes.
Some proposals, such as the moves to restore the caps on television station ownership and to limit newspaper- broadcast cross-ownership gained broad support. On the other hand, McCain's amendment to eliminate the radio ownership rule exemption that favors Clear Channel passed by a narrow 12-11 vote.
Ultimately, however, the committee's signal was clear. It was summed up well by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, who said, "The airwaves belong to the people. Broadcasters use them, under licenses that require localism and a diversity of voices. The actions taken by the FCC to raise the national ownership cap and virtually eliminate the previous ban on broadcast- newspaper combinations ignores that requirement, and advances corporate interests at the expense of the public's interest."
After the vote, Dorgan said, "Action today restores some sense of reason to this process. It would keep the current national ownership cap and the cross-ownership rules largely in place. That's a step in the right direction."
But will the Congress take the rest of the steps that are necessary? That depends as much on the people as it does on their representatives.
Encouraged by consumer, labor, civil rights and community groups, an unprecedented 750,000 Americans sent letters, cards and other emails to the FCC, urging rejection of the rule changes. Nevertheless, the agency went ahead with them. But FCC commissioners are appointed, while members of Congress are elected, and thus more receptive to public pressure.
The Congress has begun to feel that pressure. Since June 2, more than 300,000 Americans have contacted members of Congress to urge a reversal of the rule changes.
In the Senate, the public interest might well prevail. With solid support from Stevens, one of the most influential Republicans in the chamber, as well as from former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Dorgan and other Democratic opponents of the rule changes think they have a realistic chance of winning a floor vote. But they may have to fight to get that vote. Don't be surprised if Senate leaders who are closely allied with the Bush administration, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), follow White House directives to defend the FCC decision.
The fight will be even more complicated and difficult in the House, where Energy and Commerce Committee chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will fight to defend the interests of the media conglomerates that feather his nest with large campaign contributions.
But if the remarkable coalition that has come together to fight these rule changes -- which ranges from Common Cause to Code Pink to Consumers Union and the National Rifle Association -- keeps up the pressure, the story that the FCC wrote on June 2 may yet be rewritten by the American people and their Congress.
John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, and University of Illinois professor Robert W. McChesney are the co-authors of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media (Seven Stories). They are co-founders of Free Press, a media reform network that collects information about media activism, including efforts to block the FCC rule changes, at www.mediareform.net.