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2003-08-21

FCC Head Michael Powell Backpedals & Announces Study on Local Media Ownership

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After hundreds of thousands of Americans sent letters opposing the FCC’s changes to the media ownership regulations, Powell is bowing to public opinion and rethinking the new rules. Among other things, he yesterday announced the FCC would begin licensing more low-power community FM stations. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript

For the second time this week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has been forced to respond to mounting opposition over the FCC’s decision to rewrite the nation’s media ownership laws.

Yesterday Powell announced the launching of an initiative aimed at promoting what he calls 'localism' in radio and television. He said a task force would be formed to study the quantity and quality of local news broadcasts and then make recommendations to Congress.

Despite his call for the study, Powell said he remained skeptical of the notion that "the only way you can serve a local community is by having a small station in a local community owned by a local owner."

He also announced that the FCC would speed up the licensing of noncommercial, low-powered FM radio stations.

Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota said, "It is a very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism".

Powell said at several points in the news conference that he did not view the decision to appoint a task force on local concerns to be a political one. When pressed about the timing of his announcement, in the midst of the Congressional outcry over media consolidation, Powell said: "Why now? Because we are constantly working to try to find the best and most constructive way to serve our public."

Powell’s announcement on localism came two days after he called on Congress to draft new legislation to provide the FCC with clearer direction.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: But today we’re going to end the program on a different issue, and it’s the issue of the F.C.C. For the second time this week, Federal Communications Commission Chair Michael Powell has been forced to respond to mounting opposition over the F.C.C.'s decision to rewrite the nation's media ownership laws. Yesterday Powell announced the launching of an initiative aimed at promoting what he calls, localism in radio and television. He said a task force will be formed to study the quantity and quality of local news broadcasts, and then make recommendations to Congress. Despite his call for the study, Powell said he remains skeptical of the notion that, quote, the only way you can serve a local community is by having a small station in a local community owned by a local owner. Democratic senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota said, quote, "it’s very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism , and then nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism. Powell said at several points in the news conference he does not view the decision to appoint a task force on local concerns to be a political one. When pressed about the timing of the announcement in the midst of the congressional outcry over media consolidation, Powell said, why now? Because we’re constantly working to try the find the best and most constructive way to serve our public. Powell’s announcement on localism came two days after he called on Congress to draft new legislation to provide the F.C.C. with clearer direction. We have Jeff Chester on the line for only a minute, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. What do you make of this turn around?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, look, this is a direct result of the tremendous political opposition that was mounted across the political spectrum but was led by progressives, for the most part, initially including your listeners. So we are to be congratulated for forcing Powell, in this desperate move, just weeks before Congress is likely to overturn one or more of the far reaching giveaways that he authorized on June 2nd.

AMY GOODMAN: But can you explain what Congress is planning to do, so what it is he’s preempting by the study?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, what he’s trying to do is simply say, look, don’t worry. First look on the face of it is completely absurd and astounding. One of the things that Powell said in the news conference was, well, we finally have heard that the public is concerned about concentration. So it took this kind of outpouring from left to right, a near unanimous rejection by the House of Representatives to his policies, for Powell to suddenly get it, that concentration is a problem. A lot of members of Congress and indeed the public are worried about how they’re local media serve them, and now understand that what Powell did a few months ago will simply reduce the amount of localism in public affairs to the extent it can be further reduced. He does not want to be overturned. If he is overturned in Congress, he will be really the first chairman to suffer such a serious political defeat in decades. His future political career as potential senator of the state of Virginia will be in jeopardy. So he’s trying to shore up support to say, don’t worry, I’ve got this under control. We’re going to make sure that this whole thing works for the public. But, you know, he’s throwing a few crumbs to his critics, such as low power television, at a time when he has turned over the nation’s most powerful media outlets to a handful of companies that will be able to buy more TV stations, more newspapers, merge with cable companies. He’s about to today or in the next few days, transform the Internet, allowing cable monopolies and regional bell companies like Verizon and SBC to have more power over the future of the Internet. This is a distraction. Congress is likely to overturn one aspect of Mr. Powell’s decision, and that’s because powerful local broadcasting groups like post "Newsweek" and Gannett don’t want to sell out to the television networks. That rule would simply, if it was reversed, would prevent the networks from owning more television stations and potentially force CBS, Viacom and News Corp. Fox to sell some stations. The other rules, including broadcast newspaper cross ownership, whether they can be reversed remains in doubt at the moment. But there’s been wonderful work done, particularly from the progressive community to be ready in a few weeks to give Mr. Powell and his big media monopoly buddies a serious defeat.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were calling for an injunction against his media rules being instituted?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, no. What I said was, look, the idea that you would spend 18 months in the most comprehensive of his own words, study, on media concentration in the U.S. history, and make a decision that will only further media concentration, and then all of a sudden because there’s criticism to say, Whoa, we’re going to study this one more time, and not delay the implementation of these June 2nd rules is totally absurd and bizarre. I mean, Mr. Powell is completely out of touch, really, with reality, I think, because he is under so much political pressure. What he did yesterday, despite his denials in looking how local television stations serve the public, is directly connected to who owns it and the business models for entertainment media which the F.C.C. ultimately endorses. You can’t disconnect what you see on the air from how things are done out of corporate headquarters, and it’s only going to get worse after the June 2nd decisions go into affect in a few days. So, he should postpone the implementation of the June 2nd rules. He refuses to do so. And I think, frankly, he’s further weakened himself politically. This is going to be a rather meaningless exercise that he’s engaged in, not a notice of proposed rule making where rules would be proposed—it’s an inquiry. And we really should be focused on overturning the giveaway to the big media companies that he approved on June 2nd.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, I want to thank you for joining us.

JEFF CHESTER: Thank you and your listeners.

AMY GOODMAN: Executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. That does it for the program. This just in. Coalition troops in Iraq have captured one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals, Ali Hasan al Majeed, known in the United States as "Chemical Ali" by the U.S. central command. That does it for today’s program.


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