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Rep. Bernie Sanders, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Watchdog Chuck Lewis Speaking From The National Conference on Media Reform

StoryNovember 12, 2003
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This past weekend the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted the National Conference on Media Reform. Organizers expected about 200 people at the event — over 2,000 showed up.

Within the past year, media reform has gone from being a sidelined, focus-group topic to the second most important issue in Congress following the war.

The National Conference on Media Reform this weekend brought together labor, community, and media activists as well as FCC and Congress members for three days to consider ways to get the public more involved in debates over media policy.

We play excerpts from the speeches given at the National Conference on Media Reform. We hear from Chuck Lewis, Executive Director of the Center for Public Integrity, Rep. Bernie Sanders, Independent Congressman from Vermont, and FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. [includes transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Congress looks to temporarily reinstate a stricter limit on how many local station television networks can own. This according to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Ted Stevens. A measure to thwart the Federal Communications Commission ruling is expected to be folded into a larger bill funding several government agencies. This leaves Bush having to decide whether to veto the entire massive spending bill just to get rid of the FCC provision. The FCC in June relaxed media ownership rules including allowing television networks to own local stations that collectively reach a greater percent of the national audience.

Well, this past weekend the University of Wisconsin Madison hosted the National Conference on Media Reform. Organizers expected a couple hundred people to show up. More than 1800 people turned out. Within the past year, media reform has gone from being a sideline focus group topic to the second most important issue in congress following the war. The event this weekend brought together labor, community and media activists as well as FCC and congress members for three days to consider ways to get the public more involved in debates over media policy. We today will play excerpts of the speeches that were given this weekend at the media reform conference. We’re going to begin with Congress Member Bernie Sanders, the Independent of Vermont.

BERNIE SANDERS: The question is: do ordinary people care about this issue? I think the answer is absolutely “yes.” I will tell you what happened in my state. We held a congressional town meeting on the media, on corporate control over the media and media consolidation, and one night we had 300 people in Montpelier. Next night we had 400 people in Burlington. A few months later, Michael Copps came, and we had 600 people coming out in Colchester, Bob McChesney and John Nichols joined us in the southern part of the state, we had another 300 or 400 people out. So, I believe based on my experience there is huge concern about this issue. In terms of the horrendous 3-2 decision by the FCC, and, we have one of the proud dissenters here with us today, as all of you know, millions in an unprecedented way, millions of Americans communicated with the FCC, and they said, “Media consolidation today is a very serious problem. Don’t make a bad situation worse.”

Millions of people communicated their concerns about this issue to the FCC, and they communicated that same concern to the United States Congress. As a result of that, and let’s talk about the bright spots, the positive aspects of it. As a result of all of that community effort, the work that many of you have done, for the first time in modern American history, the issue of corporate control over the media and the fact that a small handful of corporations control what we see here and read is now a major political issue. And that in itself is a huge victory.

Now, when we talk about political issues, probably most of us agree we need a national health care program. We need to raise the minimum wage. We need to protect the environment. We’re concerned about what’s going on in Iraq. But when you think about political issues, at the heart of all of those issues, and many others is corporate control over the media, and the inability of the American people to get a perspective on these issues which makes sense to them.

If you are concerned, as I am, that half of the American people do not vote, and that large numbers of low income and young people have given up on the political process, certainly, one of the areas that you have got to look at is the media, and the effort that the media is doing day after day to make sure that the people do not understand that politics is relevant and important to their lives. It is, it has always been my view, that even more importantly, than a conservative and right wing slant to the issues, what is far more important are the issues that are not discussed at all, that are de-emphasized. For example, I’ll give you just a few and then we’ll talk about what we can do about it.

Today after 30 years of an explosion in technology and productivity, the average American worker is working longer hours for lower wages, is living under incredible stress. The average family now needs two breadwinners to pay the bills. Question — why with such an explosion of technology and an increase of productivity is the average American worker being squeezed and living under tremendous pressure? Seen any good tv programs on that lately? You have not. Now, what’s the result of that? That average person who is really stressed out does not see a connection between his or her life and what one sees on television or hears on the radio. So, i’m working 50 or 60 hours a week, just talked to a cab driver in Wisconsin. To make a living, he works 60 hours a week. What is the relationship of his life to what appears on the television? Is there an understanding, a context for him to understand his world?

Other issue. Moral issue. In the United States today, we have the most unfair distribution of wealth and income of any nation on earth. Richest one percent own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent. While the rich get richer, we have children in the United States of America sleeping on the streets. We have people who cannot afford adequate housing. Is that issue ?? not going to lecture on that issue–but is there a context, a moral context for some people having billions while their fellow Americans and children suffer terrible poverty? Is that a context that is ever addressed in the media, in the corporate media? And I don’t mean mention it as a story. I mean as an overall issue of basic American morality? The answer is no. So, that issue of morality in terms of mal-distribution of wealth and income.

If you work in a union, you will earn, everything being equal, 30 percent more than somebody doing the same work as you do who is non-union. Thirty percent more. Now, when you turn on the television, you will hear about the importance of investing in the stock market. Have you ever seen one program which talks about the advantage of being in a trade union? And again, this is not just a good story. It’s not that one segment of “60 minutes” is going to correct it. It is an overall mentality, an overall consciousness which is being developed.

Many of us believe that the future of America is people coming together, discussing important issues, revitalizing democracy, and then moving forward to have health care for all people, good education for all people, protecting our environment, protecting the rights of the minorities and so forth and so on. That our culture is bringing people together to improve the lot of everybody. Is that vision, which is shared, by the way, by tens of millions of Americans, ever get a statement, ever get a showing in the mass media? And, the answer is it doesn?.

The first problem we have is that what media does is deflect attention away from the most important issues, depoliticize our nation, and make people not understand the relevance of a democratic government, democratic society, to their lives. And in that sense, they are doing a major, major disservice, not just to the issues that we care about, but to American democracy as a whole. So, what do we do about it? Which is really the subject of the day today.

I think for a start, we have got to pick up on the fine work that many people have been doing recently in terms of the FCC. Now, Jonathan Adelstein is a very happy guy because people in America actually know there is an agency called the FCC. Six months ago, nobody knew that agency. What we?e got to do is make sure that everybody in America understands that what that agency can do.

For example. We?e got to demand that all of the presidential candidates are — address that issue, make it a major political issue. Go back home, and when you go to a congressional debate, ask the candidates what their position is on corporate control over the media, and the fact that the FCC wants to make a bad decision worse. Politicize that issue. Make it an issue that everybody is talking about. Second of all, we have got to think outside of the box. We have got to think outside of the box. Let me give you some examples.

I have never understood that in a nation like ours, which I’m not going to tell you it’s a progressive nation. It is not, but I will tell you it sure is not Rush Limbaugh’s nation, either. It is… So, the question — the question arises, why is that when you turn on talk radio, all that you hear is a debate between the right wing and the extreme right wing? Why is that?

The answer I think we know. It has to do with who does the advertising and who owns the networks and so forth and so on. But what I have never understood is why all of us together do not make that a political issue. So when you go back home to your town, could be New York city, by the way, which does not have any progressive outside or publicly funded, but on commercial radio, as far as I understand, no progressive voices. Why don’t we, in small towns and large, start introducing ourselves to the owners of the station? To the owners, to the people who advertise on those stations. I don’t have a problem with Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and those guys being on the radio, but I damn well have a problem that there is not an alternative voice to them.

Now, recently you will all know, i’m sure, about the courage of CBS — which buckled under some right wing people who were upset that Ronald Reagan wasn’t being treated as the magnanimous hero that we all know him to be. They put pressure on CBS. What pressure are we putting on CBS, but on all of the networks to have programming which reflects our points of view? What pressure are we putting on advertisers to say that if you are going to continue to sponsor that right wing garbage, we’re not going to purchase your products. Where are we involved in that?

When you go back home and you open your newspaper, and some newspapers may be okay, some newspapers may not, and you read the columnists that appear, have you thought about organizing the group to go into the editor? Do you know who the publisher of your newspaper is? Going in there and saying, ?i, we’d like to talk to you. We’re a little bit concerned that all you have are right wing nuts on your op-ed section and you don’t have any progressive voices. And, here are ten different progressive writers in america that you can pick up. We would like you to do so, because we don’t want to have a picket line in front of your building. We don’t want to start having to do this, that and the other thing. Make it a political issue. Let’s do that.

In terms of some of the other things that I think we can do, I think that the time is long overdue to make public television and public radio actually public. Yes. Which means that instead of having oil companies and Wall Street bringing us programs, maybe we should do it through taxpayer dollars and demand people there who will produce programming that reflects real America.

I can’t remember his name. I have been in congress now for 13 years, and during all of that time only one person has ever walked out of my office. That was the guy who was head of public television. I said, I find it really obnoxious that on public television you have all of these conservative shows. I do not hear, I do not see one — one progressive talk show on public television. He was very offended, and he walked out. Which suggested that I must have been quite right.

All right. Some of the other things that I think we can do. There was an idea developed by a fellow named Dean Baker, who is a very good economist, very good idea. To do media costs money. These guys have the money, and it’s easy for them. Our people don’t have the money. The president of the united states likes tax breaks, most of which go to millionaires and billionaire, but what about a tax break, tax credit for you for, say, $200, if you make a donation to a non-profit media organization. To the magazine of your choice, to the television station of your choice. I think that would be a way to generate substantial sums of money for progressive television and radio and newspapers.

Clearly, when we talk about campaigns, we understand the very serious problem that to run an election for congress or for anything else, you need a lot of money. If we are serious about democracy, if we’re serious about the debates, if we’re serious in understanding that the public owns the airwaves, we must mandate that television stations allow free time for all candidates.

Let me just conclude because we want to make sure that all of you have time to ask your questions. There is, in my view, no issue more important to this because it touches on all other issues. And clearly, we will ultimately not be successful unless we build a strong, progressive movement in America of working people, of people who today are not getting a fair shake at all.

But to get back to the point that I began with, in my view, in my personal experience in Vermont, and elsewhere, people are increasingly disgusted by the corporate nature of the media. We saw that most recently with the war in Iraq where God knows how many people were turning to the BBC to get information that they needed. We should not have to do that in the United States of America.

So, I conclude by saying this: If you are serious about workers’ rights, if you are serious about issues of war and peace, about the environment, about health care for all Americans, you must be seriously concerned about corporate control over the media. Because unless the American people are able to hear different points of view and get a better understanding of the world in which they live, we will not be successful in all of the other concerns that we have as well.

So, the good news is, we are making real progress, but clearly, we?e a long way to go, and I look forward to traveling that path with you. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sander, the Independent Congressman from Vermont, speaking this weekend at the National Conference on Media Reform, a website: mediareform.net. When we come back, we’ll hear from FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and John Lewis from the Center for public Integrity. Stay with us. Break for music: Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry,” here on Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to Jonathan Adelstein who wrote a 39-page dissent against the FCC rule changes to relax media ownership rules that passed in June under leadership of the FCC chair of Michael Powell. This is Jonathan Adelstein, one of the dissident FCC commissions at the Conference on Media Reform in Madison Wisconsin.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: It was one of the worst decisions ever written in the history of the FCC. There was so many mistakes, so many errors, so many contradictions that it took a lot to get across just part of them. I even discovered a few days after I had written the 39 pages, another one that they had — the FCC had actually thought that Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had as many TV stations as Detroit, Michigan, because they miscounted the number of non-commercial stations. They counted all five of them. They’re spread across the Eastern part of the state, South Dakota, but didn’t bother to notice in big cities they just have one. It was just a sloppy piece of work and you have done so much to bring that to the American people’s attention.

And The Senate and Congress got the message, the House is getting the message. We had the hearing just two days’ of hearing after the vote. It was an unusual situation to vote on something and two days later to be hauled in front of the Commerce Committee and they voted two weeks later to overturn a major portion of the rules and we got half of the Republicans on the Commerce Committee to overturn those rules.

Keep in mind this is a bipartisan issue. We have to keep it bipartisan in order to make real progress on the real issues. I think we will, but there’s a lot of issues going forward. I don’t want it take too much time because we want to have your questions but I just wanted to raise a few things that are happening to let you know what kind of a change this made.

I mean, the localism hearings that we’re doing. I know you think it may be-some people think it may be a joke, it’s just cover, but it’s a real opportunity for us. The chairman agreed. He was so beaten down by our saying that you didn’t go in these hearings, you didn’t talk to the American people, that he actually on his own has agreed to go out and go to six hears across the country and talk about localism. So, that’s an opportunity for to us get our word across.

We had one of these in charlotte. I have to tell that you we have five more coming, but we?e got to do better than we did in Charlotte. In Charlotte, the broadcasters were very well organized. They had speaker after speaker come up and say, we raised $1 million. This station raised $1 million for the cancer society. The Red Cross couldn’t have done it without WBAL. Oh, my gosh, they did so much for our community charity.

Of course they’re doing that, but they’re also making billions in profits for themselves, Throwing a little bit of dust off and then they make sure we all hear about that. They couldn’t produce witnesses that would talk about the local coverage they’re doing. That was the issue, was localism. Are they covering issues of concern to people in the local community? We all know that they?e not.

The only witness they could produce that could talk about that was a woman whose child had been abducted who had been found several years later as a result of the relentless media coverage about that issue. Well, one issue we know is not a concern that they under-cover child abductions. Every child in the country is afraid they’re going to get pulled out of their bedroom at night and every parent is afraid their child is going to be pulled away after school because that’s the only issue they tend to cover. It’s disaster and devastation and there’s never talk about what’s really happening in the local communities.

One half of one percent of all of the media, according to one study, is about local public affairs coverage. Fourteen percent is infomercials. We may be getting tighter abs, but we’re getting a flabby democracy.

So, what do we do? We go to the local hearings and meetings. We need to have people come up and say not just what the broadcasters raised for them but how outraged they are about what the FCC did about media ownership and telling us what they think that the local broadcasters are doing in their communities and telling us if they think that one half of one percent of the times on the air is doing enough to justify their broadcast license and all the wonderful profits that flow from that. We have license renewals coming up. Another thing that? become moribund, because in the 1980’s under the Reagan administration so eloquently described by Congressman Sanders they did away with the public interest obligations of broadcaster, including what they used to have to do ascertainment surveys where they go to the community and see what the needs are of the community and the broadcasters would have to explain those needs.

The license renewals are postage card renewals. You send in a postcard and you send if in and we send it back. If you have a concern in your community, but if you do?I’m not saying that you should, but if you do, now you have your opportunity. We are doing a series of license renewals. We — there’s scheduled across the country to happen in little bunches across the country. For example, we already did D.C.,, Maryland and Virginia was one package. There were 784 licensees. Only one had any complaint issue against them for the license renewal. Only one. So, if you have a concern, you need to let us know about it.and this is your chance do it. If you don’t like it, you’re going to have to wait eight more years for the next round thanks to the very effective efforts of the broadcasters in congress who got rid of their obligations.

Now, speaking of their obligations, we have digital broadcasting. Huge issue before us right now, and it’s going to be decided as soon as next month. I don’t think even our progressives here are aware that this is about to happen in such a — an important way. The way the digital transition works, the broadcaster can use the analog spectrum that they have, and when it goes digital, they can actually broadcast five or six stations — five or six signals using the same spectrum that it took to do one analog signal.

Now, the question is what’s called ?ust-carry.? Do they have to carry those signals on the local cable channel. Because, right now there’s ?ust-carry.? The cable system has to carry the analog signal that’s being broadcast by the broadcaster. There is a real question about what congress meant as to whether they have to carry all five or six on the cable channel. And the question is: what are the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters? Are we going to let them multiply one into five? And they can take three stations they own and multiply them into 18 signals that have to be carried on the system. Huge gift to broadcasters. What do we get in return? Anything?

That’s up you to and me as a commissioner, but right now, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any requirements to do any digital public interest obligations in return for the amazing gift of ?ust-carry that exponentially magnifies the ability of these media conglomerates to get their message across at not one, not two, not three, 18 channels at once.

Low power FM. Here’s another example of how this is reverberating. Low power FM stations are stations that we have had a big fight over in congress last session. The Cannard chairmanship, Michael Powell? predecessor, felt it was important to get low power stations out in the communities that were non-profits that was only broadcast in a small area, and we? get another message, another voice on the airwaves. Often they can be minority groups or small community groups. But the N.A.B. fought this like crazy. The N.A.B. is the National Association of Broadcasters. They said it would cause all sorts of interference on their stations.

So, congress rolled it back. They said, we’re going to make it much more difficult for low power FM broadcasters to send their signals across. But we’re going to do a study to see if it’s true what the N.A.B. is saying about interference. The study came back a couple of months ago and guess what, there is no interference problem that they talked about. It’s just not there. So, all of a sudden we actually see Michael Powell talking about low power FM.

A Bill Cannard special. What an amazing thing. He’s trying to find ways to at least get himself right a little bit. And, let’s get him some credit. If he’s doing something right, let’s encourage it. But we also need action from congress if we are going to do something. Because Congress again limited our ability to do that, and maybe low power FM is one way to get some community voices out there. We need to take advantage of Powell when he wants to go on the road and do localism hearings or when he wants to do something about low-power FM or he wants to give digital must-carry to the broadcasters and say we’re going to be pretty upset if there’s no public interest obligations to go with that.

I think he’s gun-shy to be honest. My colleagues that voted for this disastrous rule are gun-shy now. You have gotten their attention. You have really, I think, put the fear of the truth into them a little bit. And, they want to be very careful about what they do. So, if you raise the bar, if you demand action on these things as part of these proceedings, you can make a real difference.

Now, we have another that’s coming up, which is another example of that — cable ownership. One issue that we didn’t deal with was how many homes one cable company in this country can reach. There was a limit of 30 percent in our rules. and it was vacated by a circuit court of appeals. So, right now, we don’t have any rule at all. This has been the case for a couple of years. Now, remember, a couple of years ago, I ran into Andy Schwartzman from the media access project. He said he lost his Christmas vacation, his holiday vacation because two years ago, they said we have to rush this through and get the cable rules renewed. Well, they never did get to it. And now the chairman said he wanted to do it a while ago. We’re not hearing anything about it. He doesn’t want to get near it. Before there were rumors it would be raised from 30 percent of the country that one cable company can reach, to 40, 45, 50 percent.

Imagine the power that one cable company could have if they could control that much of the national audience, they could combine and consolidate that much. What programmer could face them down? So, now they don’t want to do that rule anymore. That’s thanks to you too. These are some of the side benefits, the reverberations of the big fight and the big noise that we all made together over media ownership.

Now I’m calling for something new. Senator Feingold from the state of Wisconsin raised the issue of payola, on the radio, the pay for play. Just last week I called for a major investigation by the FCC, and I’m talking to my colleagues about it, payola and the form it’s taking today in the radio.

I’m hearing from musicians across the country in order to get played on the radio, they need to pay either through their record labels, they need to play concerts that maybe they didn’t want to play or play them for free or less than normal rate, which then undercuts their ability to make money later when they come back to town and sell tickets for their real tour. All of these things are against the law, if they’re happening. We need to find out what’s happening in the marketplace, we need to investigate it, and we need to enforce the rules to the fullest extent of the law, because these are criminal acts.

AMY GOODMAN: FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein speaking at the National Conference on Media Reform this weekend. By the way, if you would like to get a copy of today’s show, you can call 1-800-881-2359. Jonathan Adelstein was followed by Chuck Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

CHUCK LEWIS: Let me back up to 1998.President Clinton, that was not a great year for Clinton, you might recall. But he had a State of the Union address, and he called for free air time for politicians. It was the first time and only time a U.S. president ever said that in the State of the Union address. Within days, dozens of lawmakers from the hill deluged the agency with letters calling — basically telling William Cannard, the Chairman of the FCC appointed by Clinton that if they continued with the silliness, his agency would be eliminated. That’s pressure.

We found $75 million in campaign contributions in a five year period from the powerful media interests, and we found $115 million in lobbying, all of the blue chip firms were all in the middle of all of this kind of fight. We found that congress had taken 315 all expense-paid trips around the world paid for by the media companies. The most frequent flier was Billie Tauzin, the House committee chairman who one of his trips. He took more than 40 trips. One of his trips was to Paris with his wife, $19,000, six nights. We don’t know from the records where they stayed, but I have a feeling it was not the Holiday Inn. for those-you may be aware, Tauzin is probably the broadcasters’ best friend in congress. Big surprise there. Tauzin, by the way, is about to leave Congress and replace Jack Valenti at the Motion Picture of America Association which pays about $1 million a year.

Anyway, we saw some other things which we got a glimmer of when we came back, but in mid 2002, we began a massive investigation of — much more elaborate investigation headed by John Dunnbar of the center, who is in the audience here, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute. We issued a study in May, If you add up the researchers and writers and editors and tech staff and web masters and everything, it’s about 30 people worked on it. We among other things unveiled the most comprehensive searchable web database about every broadcast station, cable television system and telephone provider in America. You can actually enter your zip code and find out who owns the media within 40 miles of your house. 100 tables, 200,000 records.

But — of course, while we looked at the extent of media ownership–and yes, it was startling — we could see how things had changed over some time, we were fascinated by the abysmal state of records themselves, and the secrecy around those records inside the FCC. Some of the records on the FCC’s website were nine years old. Of course, companies had come and gone, been merged and acquired, even multiple times in nine years. So, it was sort of an astonishing thing to note. But the big story not on action news or on tv at all, Actually, or for the most part, we looked at all expense-paid trips which we have done for many agencies. We looked at all expense-paid trips for FCC commissioners and staff over an eight year period. We found there were 2,500 all expense paid trips again throughout the U.S. and world around the world to places like Paris and Rio and Hong Kong. The number one destination for FCC commissioners and staff were of course, that Mecca of media policy and reform, Las Vegas. The biggest sponsor of the trips was the National Association of Broadcasters. This report came out just days before the June 2 vote, and it did help, I think, lend some insight about the relationship of broadcast industry to the regulators, present company excluded here.

But — sorry. But — so, an

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