Reclaim the Media

THE RECENT DECISION by the Federal Communications Commission to change broadcast ownership rules and allow fewer companies to own larger shares of radio and television markets has sparked broad opposition and has given rise to congressional efforts to roll back the ruling.

Not long after FCC chair Michael Powell announced the proposed rule change, a loose coalition consisting of public-interest advocates, media workers' unions, independent media journalists, media activists, musicians, artists, media educators, and academics joined together to oppose it. These groups generated a barrage of comments to the FCC, and later pressured the FCC to extend its deadline for accepting comments. The coalition also pressured Powell to allow 10 self-organized and semi-official public hearings around the country.

These hearings, in turn, generated national and local attention, and drew in political leaders who helped coalesce a formidable opposition to the rule change, including members of Congress and advocacy groups from the National Rifle Association to Common Cause, along with Democratic FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps.

Anti-war protesters, fresh from being blacked-out of mainstream media, staged multi-city demonstrations, citing the unbalanced coverage of peace demonstrations by Fox News, Clear Channel Communications, and CNN.

Politicians were also drawn into the fray. City councils in Buffalo, Chicago, Providence, and Seattle passed resolutions that defended the public's right to govern the airwaves. On Capitol Hill, more than 100 members of Congress expressed their opposition to the ruling. By the time the FCC actually voted on June 2, enough dust had been kicked up to prevent Republican commissioners and other supporters from claiming final victory. At the time of this writing congressional committees are drafting legislation to undercut the FCC decision.

Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,200 radio stations and reaches 110 million listeners, is among the most frequently cited examples of the detrimental effects of media consolidation. After radio stations in Minot, North Dakota, failed to respond to a police radio call requesting help notifying people of a deadly chemical spill, residents learned that Clear Channel had recently purchased six of the area's seven radio stations, and the automated programming system they installed meant there was no one at the stations to respond to emergency calls.

Sixteen hundred miles away, in Oakland, California, the same company fired its popular public affairs director, Davey D, whose political views diverged from those of Clear Channel management. At the FCC hearing on broadcast ownership rules in New York, advertising representative Jon Mandel described how Clear Channel squeezed out small, local advertisers when the company began its massive buy-out of radio stations across the country following the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
In the wake of the FCC debate, new media campaigns are picking up steam. Several members of Congress are considering introducing legislation to require free airtime for political candidates. Groups like the Center for Digital Democracy, Common Cause, and Free Press plan to raise the issue of cable ownership rules during the upcoming election cycle. And others are continuing to find ways to create their own media through satellite radio and television, local cable access TV, the Internet, print, and radio. The media democracy movement is growing, and the issue of who controls the means of communications is sure to punctuate the political debate for years to come.

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