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2004-06-25

Court Rejects FCC Attempt to Rewrite Nation’s Media Ownership Laws

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A US federal appeals court yesterday blocked the implementation of new FCC rules that would have allowed for greater media consolidation. In a 2-1 ruling, the court ordered the FCC to provide detailed justification to support their decision to lift many caps on cross ownership that limit how many tv stations and newspapers a single company can own in a geographical area. We talk to Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project, which filed the suit.[includes transcript]

Today, we are broadcasting from Los Angeles, California as we continue our Exception to the Rulers Media and Book Tour. And today our show will focus on Hollywood and the media. Michael Moore’s new film Farenheit 9-11 opens in theaters nationwide today, as Republican groups try to stop the film’s distribution and the Carlyle Group-with its close ties to the Bush family-buys out the Loews Theater chains. Later in the program, we will hear from Michael Moore, as well as actor Mike Farrell-who was one of the stars of the hit TV series MASH. But first, we turn to a major court decision yesterday on the issue of media ownership. Media activists are calling it a historic victory and a major setback for the Bush administration’s media policy.

More than a year after the Federal Communications Commission narrowly endorsed a radical rewrite of media ownership laws that would have allowed fewer media corporations to own more media outlets, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia overturned the FCC’s attempts to relax media ownership rules. The Court ordered the commission to revisit the issue, saying it should focus on protecting, rather than undermining, the public interest in diverse ownership or local and national media.

  • Pete Tridish, organizer with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia not-for-profit dedicated to the democratization of the airwaves through the proliferation of non-commercial, community based, micropower radio stations.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A federal appeals court Thursday dealt a serious setback to the nation’s largest media companies by ordering the federal communications commission to reconsider the rules it issued last summer, using the way for them to grow and enter new markets. In fact, these rules launched the largest media consolidation in this country’s history. The 2-1 decision by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia means that big broadcasting and publishing companies, which have lobbied and litigated for years in an effort to easing the rules will have to hold off on any attempts to expand. The decision was also a setback for the Bush Administration which supported even ownership limitations and for Michael Powell, chair of the commission and the main architect of new rules. Michael Powell, chair of the FCC is also the son of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. We’re joined right now by Peter Tridish, the organizer of the Prometheus Radio Project, the Philadelphia not-for-profit organization of community based Micro-power Radio Stations. You could call him the man behind the movement. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

PETER TRIDISH: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You are the one who brought this case, a true David and Goliath story. Can you talk about the significance of the Federal Appeals Court decision?

PETER TRIDISH: Sure. What happened was that the FCC, once it was taken by the republicans in 2000, launched on very aggressive campaign to allow media corporations to dramatically increase what they could own, and accelerate the trend that we have been seeing for the past 20 years or so towards very large corporations being able to own a larger and larger share of the media on levels that we have never seen before, and so we started with a really small movement of people that watched media ownership very carefully and a number of the new low power radio stations which had just come off of several years of advocacy to be able to get small 100 watt community stations to be licensed, and so, we were pretty familiar with the regulatory process at that point and we are in the habit of going down to the FCC and poking through their filings. We saw there was an enormous change about to happen, and so, we together with a number of small grassroots organizations around the country, we started using the FCC comment process and getting just everybody that we knew in the Peace And Social Justice Movement to file comments. It ended up spiraling out of being just a progressive movement because the Parent Television Council and The National Rifle Association also had real strong concerns about media consolidation of ownership, and it came to a head when the FCC ignored the 2.2 million comments that had come in over the course of this rule-making. And they just went ahead and did basically everything that they intended to do in the first place, allow the TV chains to own the radio chains. To allow the radio chains to buy the newspapers and just to allow this unprecedented consolidation. So, what our group and a number of our allies did was we worked with a media access project in Washington D.C. To sue the FCC and stop the implementation of the rules. What the judge has just handed down is a decision basically saying that the FCC in its rush to get this through, while they had a Republican administration and Republican Senate, Republican Congress, Republican Courts largely in our rush to get every last goody on the goody list for the media corporations, they overstepped themselves. They didn’t follow their own procedures, and they created a set of rules that just didn’t end up making all that much sense.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly did the Federal Appeals Court say in the 2-1 ruling?

PETER TRIDISH: Well, they looked at a host of issues. One of the complaints of the broadcasters forever has been that they’re regulated both by the FCC and the FTC; The Federal Trade Commission. They’re saying that both of these agencies are looking at them for media monopolies, and they say that’s unfair. We have to go through two different inspections. It’s almost like having your home inspected for fire code and also for building code. It’s — they had a real problem with the sort of double regulatory oversight over their agency that was looking at two different problems. The FTC was looking at actual monopoly, whether a single corporation could through its economic control of the market be able to determine outcomes of how, you know, the market played itself out. The FCC’s mission is a bit broader. Because these radio licenses and TV licenses are — they’re getting their license for free, and because — if you or — you know, or anyone else tries to use those frequencies, they come out and they arrest you, it’s sort of a special privilege that the broadcasters get. The deal has been that the broadcasters are supposed to work in the public interests. They’re supposed to do a certain amount of news programming and they’re supposed to do public service announcements and other things. And, so, the FCC’s job is to see whether the broadcasters are actually giving back what they agreed to do when they give them their license.

AMY GOODMAN: Because they’re using public property?

PETER TRIDISH: Yes. And what Michael Powell has been claiming is that, "oh, those days are over. The broadcasters don’t have it all that great anymore. There’s the internet and there’s other competition, so we shouldn’t hold them to any special standards beyond preventing an actual monopoly in economic terms." The court came back resoundingly on that issue. It is still the job (of the FCC) to regulate the airwaves to get things back from the broadcasters in terms of public service. Another key thing that the court said was that the internet by itself is not good enough as a substitute for actual diversity in broadcast ownership. The FCC had made a lot of claims that now that there is the internet, people have plenty of options in order to look for alternative sources of news when they actually looked at the studies and everything, it’s still a small proportion of people that get their news from the internet and it’s also a lot of the news that you get on the internet is just a repeat of something that’s already available on a broadcast outlet. Of the top 20 internet news sites, I think 19 or something are actually owned by media corporations like MSNBC or CNN.com. The internet by itself is not a good substitute. They also said that the 1996 Telecommunication Act, the way the FTC was interpreting it, they interpreted it as a law that said "if there is any rule out there that there’s any question about or that there is not like a bomb-proof empirical study to prove that we absolutely need this rule to prevent harm to the American public, you just have to throw it out the window". The FCC — the court looked about and they said, no, actually it, is your job as an agency to enforce rules that are not only going to prevent harm, but are actually good for the public. So, they clearly said that the FCC should be doing things that are not just necessary, but actually useful to the public. So, that set the bar higher for what the FCC is supposed to be doing when it’s regulating the airwaves. One place where they ruled against us was the newspaper broadcast cross-ownership rule. They said that in certain cases that it could be okay for a newspaper to own a broadcast outlet, and, however, they — they said that the way that the FCC established the numbers was not good enough and they had to really go back and justify that. Most dramatically, they looked through the methods that the FCC had used to come up with its conclusions. The FTC had comp you with a measuring tool called the Diversity Index. It was a way of seeing whether any one company had an enormous amount of media power. The problem was that the way that the tool was created was so weird that it actually came out with a very bizarre result. For example, a small public access station in Duchess County was rated as having more media power than "The New York Times" company. And when the — during the hearing, the judge questioned the FCC on this point for about 40 minutes, and the judge kept on saying, "well, but — so, your measurement says that the Duchess County community television station is more powerful than "The New York Times." the FCC — I felt bad for the lawyer who had to defend this completely bizarre conclusion that the FCC had come to. It was like, "well, we don’t really use it on an individual basis, we just use this finding to set our entire policy". That made everyone feel a lot better. That this rule was — that the whole intellectual under girding of this rule was something that was patently unfair on its face. They told the FCC, "you’ve really have to go back. You have to go back and give us a better justification for completely rearranging the entire media ownership rules".

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does it go from here? This is a Federal Appeals Court 2-1 ruling that the FCC appeals this decision.

PETER TRIDISH: I’m certain that they will. It’s hard to say how long they have to do that with, though, with the election coming up. They will have to enter their appeal in the next few weeks. I’m sure they will. They could appeal to the Third Circuit. They could also appeal it to the Supreme Court. It could end up there over the course of the next month.

AMY GOODMAN: We now head off this weekend to do Grassroots Radio Conference that is taking place in Santa Barbara, California, just a couple of hours from here. We’re both here from the East Coast. You’re from Philadelphia. Where does this lead the Prometheus Radio Project, and what are your plans now, how does low power fit into this picture?

PETER TRIDISH: It’s funny. Until about 16 hours ago, we were very, very focused on a piece of congressional legislation that we’re trying to get through, because our main mission is to build community radio stations, these very small radio stations that belong to small civil rights groups churches, schools. There’s an important opportunity in congress to expand the low power service. There have been number of stations going on around the country. But they have only been allowed in the small towns in Louisiana or Florida, but right now, Senators McCain and Leahy just introduced legislation that would allow low power stations to start themselves in the cities, that would you have neighborhood groups in Minneapolis and New Orleans to be able to run a small community radio station. So, we’re really focused on that legislation, trying to get the Congress to understand the issues behind that, and to get a break for all of these groups that we have been working with for five, six years now, that have been waiting for an opportunity to apply for a license, but have been denied so far.

AMY GOODMAN: How many licenses are you hoping to get?

PETER TRIDISH: Could be as many as 1,000 new licenses. It’s hard to tell.

AMY GOODMAN: You were already defeated on this once?

PETER TRIDISH: Right. We had — the FCC actually gave us the rules that we thought were appropriate, but Congress imposed a restriction that took away about three-quarters of the licenses that we would have initially gotten. Mostly the ones in the larger cities. So, what we were hoping was that sometime in this legislative session, actually in the next six weeks or so, that we could move this bill through the committees and get it to the point where it would be, you know, looked at for passage.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. This is a true David and Goliath story. We’re going to turn to another David and Goliath story now, and it’s the story of Michael Moore. I’m sure many see it sometimes as versus the world, but certainly versus the world of big media. Thank you very much for being with us.

PETER TRIDISH: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!. Democracynow.org.

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