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2005-01-24

Media Concentration Proponent Michael Powell Resigns From FCC

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As Michael Powell announces his resignation as chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, we take a look at his four years in office and his push to loosen media ownership rules with Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project. [includes rush transcript]

Michael Powell is stepping down as chairman of the federal Communication Commission ending a contentious four year-term. His resignation was announced in a Wall Street Journal editorial on Friday. Powell wrote: "Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency. The seeds of our policies are taking firm root in the marketplace and are starting to blossom."

Powell–who is the son of outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell–was appointed to the commission in 1997 by President Bill Clinton and promoted to chairman by President Bush in 2001.

In June 2003, Michael Powell and the two other Republicans on the FCC pushed through new media ownership rules that would have allowed the television networks to own a few more stations, tightened national radio ownership rules, and let one company own the biggest newspaper and television station in almost every city. During the run-up to the FCC vote, more than two million letters, emails and faxes were sent to the FCC. Almost all of them opposed the weakening of the nation’s media ownership regulations. The rules were later overturned by a court that said the commission had failed to justify the ruling.

The replacements being considered for Mr. Powell are said to include another Republican member of the commission, Kevin Martin; Becky Klein, a former head of the public utility commission in Texas; Patrick Wood III, the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and Michael Gallagher, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

  • Jeffrey Chester, Executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
  • 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: We’re joined now by two people, Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and Pete Tridish, organizer of the Prometheus Radio Project, which is a Philadelphia not for profit, dedicated to the democratization of the airwaves through the proliferation of non-commercial community-based micropower radio stations. Jeff Chester, let’s begin with you. Your response to Michael Powell’s resignation and his tenure?

JEFFREY CHESTER: I think the most important thing is who will replace Michael Powell, and now there’s potentially two other seats at the FCC, potentially three seats are open. I think that the tenure of Michael Powell has served a lesson for the public, that the chair of the FCC is an extremely important position. Up until Michael Powell, we really sort have of taken the FCC chair for granted. It hasn’t gotten that much attention, but I think that it’s clear, that the chair can act in very destructive ways towards our media system, to journalism, to creative expression. We have to place as much concern about who runs the FCC as we do our federal judicial nominations. I’m hoping that there’s going to be a campaign, and we can ramp up and influence who gets the job and more importantly, who doesn’t get the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Pete Tridish, if you could respond, it was Prometheus Radio Project, a true David and Goliath story, that brought the suit in Philadelphia that led to the rules being overturned by the court there.

PETE TRIDISH: Sure. Early on in his term, Michael Powell had said to an audience of communications lawyers that his goal during his administration was to make it so that when major media companies want to merge, tribune company wants to buy Time-Warner or whatever, that he was going to try to get this processed in something like 14 business days. And you know, we were — we had all just applied for low power radio stations. These are 100 watt radio stations, the power of a light bulb. Our applications had dragged on for three years, four years. And they just sort of languished at the commission. And we saw that there was a serious sort of skewing of priorities by Powell’s administration, and we just felt that the FCC was bending over backwards for the corporations but not taking the concerns of regular people seriously. So, when they tried to steamroll through their agenda on allowing all of these corporations to merge, we felt it was very appropriate for us to take them to court, and do our best to get the FCC to listen to the concerns of ordinary Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think will happen from here?

PETE TRIDISH: Well, you know, it’s very hard to say. I mean, the — the FCC is going to be led by republicans. There’s always a three-two skew in favor of the party of the president. We have two excellent democratic commissioners at this point, and it’s hard to say who is going to get nominated to head the FCC I’d have to say that, you know, with the republican courts, the republican senate and republican presidency and republican congress, we can look forward to more of the same sorts of policies on media ownership. It’s hard to say how they’re going to be pursued. But we have no doubt what the agenda of the Bush administration will be.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, in announcement of the news that Michael Powell was resigning on the networks, they often talked about the lead was that he was really conducting the battle against obscenity, referring to the whole case of Janet Jackson. Can you talk about that, and significance of that versus the launching the media consolidation, perhaps the greatest in history?

JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, I actually think that Michael Powell did not like having to be America’s nanny in chief, and one reason why he’s resigning so soon is because he was forced by the bush administration and the republican leadership in congress to seize this issue of so-called indecency, which the republicans uphold and realize it resonates with a lot of their core supporters. Here was a guy, Powell, who really believed that the marketplace, so to speak, should determine what people see. He didn’t believe in any kind of regulatory context, for the most part. So, this was forced upon him by the republicans. And it clearly had a chilling effect, and one of our concerns should be that whoever runs the FCC, and it could be a current commissioner, Kevin Martin, who is a big pro-crusade against indecency person, he could be the next chair, and he would not have to go through a confirmation because he’s already sitting. But whoever is the chair of the FCC will have tremendous influence on what happens to the internet and all of the digital media. That’s one reason why the stakes are so high and why we have to be more organized and vigilant this time. Will it continue to be an open network or will the internet, as supported by Powell, become increasingly under the control of the biggest cable and it telephone companies.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about other media news. The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that federal antitrust enforcers are investigating plans by the newspaper companies, Gannett and The New York Times to acquire or invest in local rivals. The Justice Department is investigating Gannett’s proposed buyout of the Midwest communication newspaper Hometown Communications Network Inc. Meanwhile the Justice Department is has opened a preliminary inquiry into The New York Times plans to take a 49% stake in metro Boston a free daily that competes with the Boston Globe, which is also owned by The New York Times.

JEFFREY CHESTER: This is certainly a worthwhile investigation. I don’t know whether it will actually be lead to anything. The Boston Herald, in particular, which is the second paper in the Boston market, which has good conservative republican contacts in Washington, that’s one reason why they have taken on this case no doubt. It’s very concerned about The New York Times’ growing market presence in the Boston area. And it’s buying, you know, minority control of this free weekly paper. What it illustrates is that the biggest media companies are simply buying up whatever is left standing in the print and broadcast arenas. And the FCC has to redo the rules now, as a result of the case brought by Prometheus and media access project. Once again, whoever is chair will determine, you know, who can own your newspaper, who can own your radio and television stations, whether or not there will be any competition at all for programming on cable and satellite.

AMY GOODMAN: Hmm. Well, Jeff Chester and Pete Tridish. Jeff Chester of Center for Digital Democracy, the Prometheus Project.

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