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Court Rejects Media Deregulation

A July ruling on media ownership by a federal appeals court in Philadelphia handed a victory to grassroots activists working for media democracy, and delivered a defeat to the Bush administration and to the small handful of corporations who own or distribute most of what Americans see, hear, and read.

The court's ruling effectively nullified the Federal Communications Commission's June 2003 decision to weaken a set of media ownership regulations.

The FCC's new rules, which were stayed by the court last fall and never went into effect, would have increased the number of television stations a single company could own in individual cities as well as nationwide. It also would have allowed cross-ownership of both newspapers and broadcast stations in the same community.

Prior to the June 2003 FCC decision, hundreds of thousands of citizens sent in e-mails, postcards, and letters opposing the proposed deregulation on the grounds that consolidation is harmful to diversity. The FCC issued its weakened ownership rules anyway, on a 3–2 vote spearheaded by Chairman Michael Powell.

A nationwide network of grassroots community groups mobilized public opposition to the planned deregulation and pushed Congress and the federal courts to block the new rules. Congress launched several attempts to repeal aspects of the FCC decision or to completely overturn it, but none succeeded entirely.

The legal case was brought by a Philadelphia-based grassroots group the Prometheus Radio Project in conjunction with the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.

The Third Circuit Court rejected Powell's position that unless the FCC could demonstrate that a particular ownership regulation remained necessary to the public good, it should be swept away.  The FCC ought not to use its biennial reviews as a “one-way ratchet” toward deregulation, the court said. The FCC might in fact find that “the public interest calls for a more stringent regulation,” the court noted, rather than a loosening of ownership caps.

While the court didn't object to every aspect of the FCC's June 3 decision, it remanded the entire decision to the FCC for reconsideration, citing numerous inconsistencies and an overall lack of transparency in the FCC's methods and logic. The court also rebuked the FCC for failing to provide more public notice of its planned review of the ownership rules.

When the FCC begins to revisit the ownership rules—a process expected to begin again this fall—there will be tremendous pressure for the FCC to open its proceedings to public input. Grassroots groups have launched a campaign for the FCC to hold official public hearings in all 50 states before further altering the ownership rules.

—Jonathan Lawson

For more information, see www.reclaimthemedia.org, www.prometheusradio.org, www.free press.net, or www.mediaaccess.org. Jonathan Lawson is cofounder and codirector of Reclaim the Media, which advocates for media democracy in the Northwest.

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