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2006-09-20

Why Did the FCC Bury Studies on Media Consolidation?

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The Federal Communications Commission has ordered an investigation into why two reports that called into question media consolidation were never released to the public. Both reports have come to light in just the last week. A former FCC lawyer says top agency officials ordered staff to destroy every last copy of one of the studies. [includes rush transcript]

For the second week in a row, the Federal Communications Commission is facing allegations of censorship. Yesterday, it was disclosed that the agency buried a critical study of media consolidation. The study, titled ’ A Review of the Radio Industry’ found that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had led to a drastic decline in the number of radio station owners — even as the actual number of commercial stations in the United States had increased.

Last week, a former FCC lawyer revealed that top officials ordered staff to destroy all copies of a draft of another study, which concluded that greater concentration of media ownership hurt local television news coverage. Both former FCC Chair Michael Powell and current Chair Kevin Martin deny ever seeing the reports. Yesterday, Martin ordered a formal investigation into why these two agency reports were never made public.

  • Timothy Karr. Campaign director of Free Press, a media reform organization.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Karr joins us now from New York. He is a campaign coordinator with the organization Free Press. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

TIMOTHY KARR: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain each of these reports? What has happened? The first report, then the second.

TIMOTHY KARR: Well, the first report, which came to light during Chairman Kevin Martin’s confirmation hearings last week, actually dealt with the content of news in locally owned stations. It showed that locally owned stations on average did five-and-a-half minutes more per half-hour of local news than their consolidated counterparts. Now, this report, which challenged a lot of the assertions of then-Chairman Powell, that consolidated stations were much more likely to cover local news, disappeared. We don’t know where it is. I mean, we didn’t know where it went in 2004. We know today that it was buried.

The second report, which came to light later in the week — it actually came to light over the weekend and was revealed on Monday morning — also looked, as you said, at radio ownership and showed that while commercial stations increased in number, the actual ownership decreased by 35%. In most cases you had very large corporations like Clear Channel buying up more and more of these local stations.

So we’ve been very concerned. Free Press is part of a coalition called stopbigmedia.com, various groups that have called on Chairman Martin to launch a thorough investigation of these disappearing reports. And thankfully, yesterday, Chairman Martin did just that. So we are hoping that this independent investigation will reveal the extent to which this information has been buried at these federal agencies. And we’re also asking that in the current review of media ownership, that no decision be made at the FCC until this full report is revealed and we know whether or not there has been any meddling at the FCC to bury evidence that in fact shows that big media is bad for us all, us American people.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, presumably a number of people had to be involved with these reports. How was the squelching of not one, but two reports carried out and only being exposed now?

TIMOTHY KARR: Well, I mean, we’re thankful that there were whistleblowers within the FCC who have alerted us that these reports existed. Otherwise, they would be gathering dust somewhere at the FCC. And so, the process is unclear. Both Chairman Martin and former Chairman Powell have said that they knew nothing about the reports, and they have denied repeatedly, which is — it’s a little bit absurd. I mean, it seems to me that they’re more interested in protecting their political legacy than they are in actually getting to the truth of the matter. Fortunately, we do have this investigation. We hope that it will be thorough. We hope that it will reveal exactly how these reports were buried.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the public comment period on media consolidation has been expanded, is that right?

TIMOTHY KARR: That’s right. We have a month more. You may know the history. In 2003, then-Chairman Powell tried to rewrite media ownership rules that really loosened the last significant holds to media consolidation. There was a massive public outcry. It was rebuked by Congress, and the Third District Court in Philadelphia then threw it back to the FCC. The FCC is now rewriting those rules. And over the summer, Chairman Martin issued what’s called the Notice of Public Rulemaking. And he has asked the public to comment on this process. In 2003, when the public commented on this process, more than 97% of those commenting were against media consolidation.

So now, we have three months. We have until the end of December to get our comments in. And we’re helping people at stopbigmedia.com do that. Free Press is helping out, as well, with a number of other organizations, so that the chairman can make a decision on whether or not to loosen further ownership curbs with full public consent. And we expect that this time around he will listen to the public opinion and make a decision accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: And a hearing will be held in Los Angeles soon?

TIMOTHY KARR: That’s right. We have — Chairman Martin, when he did release this Notice of Public Rulemaking, committed to holding at least a half-dozen public hearings, the first of which is scheduled for October 3rd in Los Angeles. In the interim, a number of other groups have been convening public hearings with FCC commissioners. Commissioner Adelstein, Commissioner Copps, they have both come to several in the past. Here in New York, on October 19th, the National Hispanic Media Coalition is planning to do an FCC hearing. They’ve invited all the commissioners to come. So, this is a very important process, and it’s important that everybody turn out to these meetings. There’s a chance for the public to testify — it goes right into the public record — before the commissioners and tell them how media consolidation impacts them in their communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Karr, I want to thank you very much for being with us, campaign director for the organization Free Press, a media reform group.

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