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2006-06-27

Lawmakers, Regulators Face Key Decisions on Future of Media Ownership, Internet, Public Access, Low Power Radio

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Lawmakers and regulators in Washington are in the midst of making a number of decisions that could affect the nation’s media ownership laws, the future of the Internet, public access television and the expansion of low power FM radio stations. We speak with Hannah Sassaman of the Prometheus Radio Project which successfully sued the FCC three years ago in an effort to block the new media ownership rule changes. [includes rush transcript]

Lawmakers and regulators in Washington are in the midst of making a number of decisions that could affect the nation’s media ownership laws, the future of the Internet, public access television and the expansion of low power FM radio stations.

In the Senate, the Commerce Committee is expected to vote this week on a major telecommunications bill that involves both net neutrality as well as the expansion of low power FM radio stations.

Meanwhile the Federal Communications Commission has reopened discussions on rewriting the nation’s rules that limit how many newspapers and radio and TV stations a single company can own in a city.

The Republican-led FCC tried to weaken the ownership laws in 2003 but was forced to back down following mass opposition from citizens and media advocacy groups.

  • Hannah Sassaman, program director of the Prometheus Radio Project. Prometheus successfully sued the FCC three years ago in an effort to block the new media ownership rule changes.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is Hannah Sassaman. She is program director of the Prometheus Radio Project, which successfully sued the FCC three years ago in an effort to block the new media ownership rule changes. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Hannah.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening in Congress today?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: This is the markup of Senate Bill 2686. At 10:00 a.m., your senators are going to be debating whether or not we will have access to expanded low power FM radio stations across the country, serving churches, schools, community groups, emergency responders, and whether or not we will have the right to have an open internet, where we can put out any content that we want or receive any content that we want, regardless of who owns the lines that get us access to the internet. This is a very big omnibus bill. It also includes regulations and legislation about public access television and about national video franchising.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens? On what side are different groups coming down right now?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: It’s really interesting. The big telecom communications — Comcast, Verizon, Viacom, Clear Channel — all of these corporations are using big omnibus pieces of legislation like this to divide our movement. Groups like Free Press and Consumers Union and Common Cause are encouraging us to call our senators and ask for really hard legislation to protect our access to the internet, to protect net neutrality, to make sure that people can access Democracy Now!, whether or not Comcast wants you to see it, if they lay the lines to your house.

And advocates like Prometheus are encouraging people to call their senators and ask them to expand low power FM radio on Senate Bill 2686. We have many different amendments that are going to be put on this bill. We’re only a third of the way through the mark-up. They started last week. There’s 11 titles to the bill, and we’re only on title 2. So we have this entire week to make extremely clear to our senators that we demand local control of our media structures, whether it be television, radio, cable or the internet.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain, because I don’t think "net neutrality" is a word that we’re seeing very much in the corporate media, where most people get their information, from television. Explain what you mean when you say will we have access to websites, will people be able to put out their content online.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Let me give you an example. At Prometheus, we host our website prometheusradio.org on a small independent web-host company. Let’s say that the big communications companies decide to go and talk to the National Association of Broadcasters, who is trying to prevent the expansion of low power FM, and they work out a deal. Unless Prometheus pays thousands upon thousands of dollars to Verizon or Comcast or whoever we have in our country to give us internet access, they can erode our content. They can make it so our page loads in five minutes, rather than five seconds. They can also do the same for programs like Democracy Now!

Let’s say that Comcast would prefer it if all of the listeners and viewers who download this program over the internet would watch a proprietary program that they produced or they formed a relationship with NBC and they really wanted to you watch The Today Show. They could make it so the content at democracynow.org, downloaded so slowly that consumers and communities just couldn’t watch it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what stops them from doing that?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Right now what stops them from doing that is the First Amendment of the internet, net neutrality, a relationship basically between these corporations, where they don’t erode each other’s content. But that only makes a difference if you don’t have consolidation in the telecommunications industry. If only one or two corporations own the way, own the highway by which we get access to the internet, if only a few corporations own that, they can work out a deal amongst themselves to put forward their proprietary content and charge the rest of us premium fees to get on. Unless we have meaningful competition, net neutrality goes out the window.

AMY GOODMAN: So how does the law that’s being debated now in the Senate, how does the bill affect that? What does it say?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Currently the bill, as it has been put forward by Senator Stevens, does not include meaningful net neutrality protections. However, there is an amendment being offered by Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe that would enforce that the FCC had to check up every time a customer or a corporation thought that their content or their access was being eroded. We need meaningful laws protecting our access, or the American internet system will become a backwater of the internet of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: How much coverage is this getting in the corporate media, the kind of really, well, ground-breaking legislation that’s being passed that will determine the internet for years to come?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: It’s interesting, because people right now are using the internet primarily as the main source to communicate with each other about net neutrality provisions. In 2001, Project Censored described media consolidation in telecommunications and in broadcast as one of the top stories that was not being covered by the corporate media. We continue to fight along that same paradigm, using person-to-person internet tools to get this message out. The irony is that if net neutrality provisions are not enforced, that we’ll lose the way that we now communicate with people around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of news coverage, where most people get their news from the corporate networks, very little coverage.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Very little coverage on broadcast TV, very little coverage in the papers that we read in the towns across America.

AMY GOODMAN: So on the one hand, you have this bill that’s now going forward in the Senate. You have amendments, like those that would expand low power FM stations around the country. When you talk about dividing the movement, what do you mean?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: We have so many pieces of our communications systems that are appropriate for our communities. In one town, like Manhattan, for example, you have the Manhattan News Network [sic], the neighborhood news, which is this huge extremely diverse system, where people get trained and produce their own information.

AMY GOODMAN: Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the public access TV station.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Yes, sorry, MNN. In Immokalee, Florida, they have Radio Consciencia. It’s a farm worker-led radio station, where communities can get on the air, talk about indentured servitude in the fields of Southwest Florida and fight to get their labor rights enforced. That is the appropriate communications technology for Immokalee. MNN is appropriate for Manhattan. And we have all of these options that we have determined are important.

By putting all of these different provisions by the telecom companies and the broadcast industry fighting for all of these provisions to be on one bill, they’re trying to divide us. But we have proven that we can clearly articulate to our senators that we want to fight for low power FM on Senate Bill 2686 and we want to fight for meaningful net neutrality provisions on the bill, as well as locally determined, municipally controlled public access television. We’re a sophisticated group of folks across the United States, who understand why media consolidation affects us.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which for a time now has had four commissioners — two Republican, two Democrat — but now, they’ve gotten the third Republican, so it’s 3 to 2, and they’re moving forward. What are they doing?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: We just got Robert McDowell on. And so now that there are five commissioners, as you’ve just described, they have just reopened the rule-making, which is when the FCC asks the American public to comment on a new set of rules it’s putting out, that would deregulate media ownership. This is the same set of rules that the FCC tried to pass off on the American public in 2002 and 2003, when three million people wrote the FCC and said, "No. We want locally controlled stations with public interest obligations, so we can control the media." The FCC put out about 30 paragraphs describing these rules that they wanted to put out.

We have until October 21 to tell the commission that we want no more consolidation from the Clear Channel Corporation, which owns almost 1,300 stations across the United States. We have until October 21 to say that we don’t want one corporation to own the major daily newspaper and a broadcast TV station and to say that we don’t want one corporation to own both CBS and NBC in one town. We can tell the FCC that we want our access to the media. You can go to freepress.net or prometheousradio.org to learn how you can comment on the commission’s rules.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see that the commission has been changed in any fundamental way since the huge fight-back that happened when Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell, was head of the FCC, who in the end, when he left, said he was absolutely shocked by the response of the millions of people, never thought that they would respond to this arcane agency, what he thought, the FCC.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: The FCC, I would say, is frankly afraid of us. We have so clearly articulated how their rules — they don’t help our democracy, they hurt it. They prevent us from having access to our city council hearings. They prevent us from knowing about different issues that are happening in our towns.

In 2003, when Michael Powell went to San Antonio for one of the few localism hearings he put together, 500 San Antonians came to that hearing and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had disserved him. None of the Republicans ever went to another one of those localism hearings again.

We now have the power to scare them and to make sure that they understand that we will not allow them to deregulate our media, and we will prove with our anecdotes and with statistical information that they must regulate in the public interest. There’s a huge coalition of groups that are gathering now, and you can go to stopbigmedia.com or you can visit any of the other websites I named to get involved with that fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah Sassaman, thanks so much for being with us, program director at the Prometheus Radio Project. Thank you so much.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Thank you very much.

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