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FCC Commissioners Adelstein and Copps Decry Proposals to Ease Caps on Media Consolidation

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Federal Communications Commission Chair Kevin Martin has proposed to do away with a rule that bars companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. In 2003, Martin voted with the then-FCC chairman Michael Powell to lift the same media ownership rules, but the effort was overturned by the landmark Prometheus v. FCC decision. As public hearings continue, we speak to dissident FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Opponents of media consolidation packed a hearing room at the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday to criticize plans to rewrite the nation’s media ownership rules. FCC Chair Kevin Martin has proposed to do away with a rule that bars companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. In 2003, Martin voted with the then-FCC chair, Michael Powell, to lift the same media ownership rules, but the effort was overturned by the landmark Prometheus v. FCC decision. The FCC was ordered to justify the changes and their impact on diversity and localism.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, radio broadcaster Bob Edwards and others testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Edwards warned that if the FCC relaxes its rules, radio station owners would “adopt a business model that shuts out local news and entertainment in favor of national homogenized programming.” Before the hearing started, the Reverend Jesse Jackson briefly addressed a rally outside the FCC.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: When we’re discussing the networks, where are the networks? As we’re discussing the networks, where are the networks? By denying us access to the networks, they make our case. They’re blocking us out. People cannot respond, because people do not know. I must say before the next speaker, as I traveled around the world just before the Iraq war, two million people marched in Britain, a million-plus marched in France, almost a half-million in Australia. Why did so few people march in America? Because the media owners supported the war and dumbed down the — we caught onto the war issue late, because information came late. That’s why this meeting has global ramifications for justice at home and peace abroad. So let’s keep marching.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Jesse Jackson, president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. We’re joined right now in Washington by two of the FCC commissioners: Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are the two dissident commissioners. We also invited Kevin Martin on the broadcast; he declined our invitation.

Jonathan Adelstein, let’s begin with you. Why exactly was this hearing held? How much advance notice did people get for this hearing? And what’s being weighed?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: People weren’t really given notice of this meeting until the last possible moment allowed by law, just five business days before it met. So we had a fairly small turnout — a very powerful turnout, though, of people that gave witness to the fact that localism, coverage of local issues, is diminished as media giants get larger and larger. As they consolidate, they don’t cover what’s happening in local communities. They don’t live in the local community. They don’t serve local communities as well. So that was the message of this hearing. It’s about localism.

We had a proceeding that Michael Powell started, discussing how can media outlets be more responsive. And it was basically put on ice by the current chairman, but the members of Congress demanded that it be finished before we’d move to media consolidation. So yesterday, just to sort of check the box, we held this hearing, and it turned out, of course, to get an outpouring from the American people, from experts, that localism is not well served by media consolidation.

AMY GOODMAN: What is localism?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Localism is whether or not a broadcast outlet is responsive to the issues in the community. For example, there’s very few minority or women owners of broadcast outlets. Their issues aren’t handled in ways that those communities consider to be sensitive or responsive to their many contributions to the community at large.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Copps, what is new about what Kevin Martin is doing? What exactly is he saying he wants to do?

MICHAEL COPPS: Nobody knows. That’s one of the problems that we have here. He is trying to get us on a fast pace, do a fast break for more media consolidation, probably would include some loosening of the ban or elimination of the ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership.

And one of the really bombshell things that came out of the meeting yesterday was research that was presented by Free Press that just knocks the traces out from under the Martin argument and the previous FCC argument that newspaper/broadcast ownership isn’t so bad after all. It shows, this research, conclusively that if you combine newspapers and broadcast in a market, any size market, that the coverage of local news in that market is going to be diminished. You know, the one broadcaster that’s combining with the newspaper might be able to put on a little bit more news, but it’s going to drive others out of the market. It’s going to close more newsrooms, and it’s going to detract from voices in that particular market. So I think that just that one argument alone ought to put this on hold.

Isn’t it amazing that we’re always talking about eliminating rules, eliminating rules, rather than saying we live in a new media market now, the new world of DTV, the new world of Rupert Murdoch, the new world of private equity financing; do we need some new protections for the American people? How has this changed things? It’s always fast break for big media, four corner stall for the public interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Who specifically benefits most by this, what media owner in the country?

MICHAEL COPPS: Oh, I think any of the big consolidated companies. We all know who they are. The big folks, they’re the ones that are pressing. But, you know, I think it goes beyond that, because if we really loosen the rules, and some medium-sized broadcaster here can trade this station for — so we can have a duopoly in another market, you know, a lot of them would supposedly benefit from that.

AMY GOODMAN: You have Sam Zell, who just brought the Tribune Company. The Tribune Company had grandfathered in that they could have radio and television, a newspaper in a town. But once a new owner buys, like Zell, he will lose that, unless these restrictions are relaxed, the ones that Kevin Martin has suggested doing. Jonathan Adelstein?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Another option that Zell has asked for is a waiver of the rules until we finalize the broader media ownership rules, but Kevin Martin has basically held the whole Tribune deal hostage to the broader issue. In other words, he’s trying to shoehorn changing the broader rules for the whole country in order to get Tribune done. He’s saying, “I’m going to basically not do Tribune until you do everything, until you let everybody combine newspapers and broadcast.”

AMY GOODMAN: Why should Tribune get this waiver?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, it’s not clear whether they should or shouldn’t, but what is clear is that you shouldn’t be holding one transaction hostage to the broader issue. I think that there’s some support on both sides of the aisle for the Tribune deal, depending on where numbers are from, so he’s trying to use that as a wedge, essentially. And I don’t think it’s right to take a transaction hostage. No matter what you think of the transaction, up or down, whether the waiver should be approved, it’s just not right to say that we’re going to make all these folks wait while we try to force through these changes that will affect the entire media market for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time that this hearing was happening, Michael Copps, you used the opportunity to say that Rupert Murdoch’s buying of The Wall Street Journal should be investigated by the FCC; why?

MICHAEL COPPS: Absolutely. This is a huge, huge media deal, a huge transaction. It implicates not only all of the national properties that News Corp. would own, but it has direct effects in the New York City market. Now, some of the FCC have been arguing that we have no jurisdiction over this deal, because this is a national newspaper, rather than a local newspaper, and we’re only supposed to be looking at local newspapers. And there’s some murky precedent back when USA Today was judged to be a national newspaper years and years ago in a totally dissimilar media market.

I think our public interest responsibilities in this new media age clearly mandate that we look at the ramifications of this, both from the national perspective but also from the local perspective. It is there. If you control the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal and all these other properties, you are a big player in determining the cultural and political voice and the messages that get to that city. And that is about localism, and we have an obligation to be looking at that.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Rupert Murdoch owns.

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, I don’t have a list with me. It would go on and on. He owns 35 full-power television stations, including a couple in New York. He owns Fox. They own distribution, they own content.

AMY GOODMAN: In New York, it would be The Wall Street Journal, it would be the New York Post.

MICHAEL COPPS: It would be the New York Post, WNYW, WWOR.


MICHAEL COPPS: There’s a whole list of properties. If you look at the properties that all of these big companies own, it’s mind-boggling. And it’s not just traditional media; it’s new media, too. And anybody who’s interested in the future of that Internet and all that ought to be interested in this issue, because it’s the same trend toward consolidation, it’s the same trend toward a few players moving in, taking over the news sites on the Internet, and in some instances exercising control over that network. And it’s a huge, huge deal for anybody who believes in Internet freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: More than half of Americans surveyed said it should be illegal for a company to own a newspaper and a television station in the same market, this according to the Media and Democracy Coalition, more than half. Michael Powell got tremendous pushback. He talked about that when he ultimately left, was completely shocked by what happened. So why is Kevin Martin doing this?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: What’s so interesting about that poll is that it’s the same for Democrats, Republicans, moderates, conservatives, virtually by the same margins. They oppose newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership by two to one. Seventy percent of the American people think that media consolidation has gone too far already. Again, virtually the same proportion for conservatives and liberals. Americans understand that we don’t want big media to get bigger. They don’t trust big media, they don’t trust big government. It’s in the American spirit, going back to the American Revolution, that we’ve never liked media to dominate the landscape. We want to hear a diversity of voices. And when either one of these chairmen go after this, they are really putting their fist right into a hornet’s nest of American public opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’m sorry Kevin Martin isn’t here to explain why he is pushing for this, but what is the timetable, and what kind of input will the public have? You had your hearing yesterday with the last possible notice that could be given.

MICHAEL COPPS: I think the timetable right now is known only to be chairman and has not been really made public. Everybody knows that he would like to — like to do this [inaudible]. It’s been reported that he had a plan originally that would have a vote taken place by December 18, so when everybody’s busy wrapping their Christmas presents and Congress has gone home. But I don’t see how that’s possible right now, because we still haven’t had the last media ownership hearing.

And we really have no business tackling this until we finish these other proceedings that have been pending at the commission for so long. We have had, for example, the localism proceeding pending since 2004. we have public interest obligations, especially in the DTV age. What should these DTV broadcasters be doing to serve the public? Why don’t we finish those things? Why don’t we figure out about diversity and what we’re going to increase minority and female ownership, then do it? We’ve got the carrot before the horse.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your plan to do that? What is your plan to increase minority and woman ownership?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, I think it has to be a multifaceted attack. Everybody — Jonathan and I and many of the folks who were there yesterday would be very much in favor of Congress legislating again some kind of a tax certificate program to increase incentives for minority-owned. But there are things that we can be doing at the commission. If a woman or minority group wants to buy a station, why can’t we say, well, it takes a while to raise money in this environment, why can we give that group a little bit longer to go out and raise money or extend construction deadlines? We’ve had committees look at this. Our own diversity committee sent tons of recommendations upstairs for the chairman to see. And basically we’re stuck there for a year or two years, and then only kind of grudgingly put out for comment a few weeks ago. But we don’t want just comment back; we want action.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Adelstein, what can the FCC do to protect public access, to require that AT&T and Verizon provide the same capacity, the same capacity as cable companies that currently are responsible for making sure that public access continues?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, just yesterday, again over the opposition of Mike Copps and myself, the commission voted three to two to further unravel support for public access programming by cable companies. Basically we gave the new entrants, AT&T and Verizon, something of a pass, saying that you don’t have to provide very much; we’re going to force localities, over their own objections, to allow you to serve the community, whether or not you agree to what the local officials are requesting, which is all in violation of the way that Congress set it out in the law.

And yesterday we said, well, since we gave such a giveaway to the new entrants, we’ve got to give the same benefit to the cable companies. So cable companies, who already have perfectly well-working deals with local communities, now can get to the lowest common denominator, they can get the same sweetheart deal that the newest entrants get, even when the deal has been worked out with local authorities. We’re basically riding roughshod over local municipalities in states all across the United States. We’re undercutting support for PEG, which is public and educational governmental channels. These are the channels where you can watch your local city council, you can watch your own locally produced programming. We have just kicked the legs out from under it. The only good news is I think it was in violation of the law, and eventually the courts will catch on, and that will get overturned. But in the meantime, a lot of damage will be done.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve used the term “media sharecropping.” What do you mean?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, there’s been a lot of talk about leasing or allowing some people to just borrow the airwaves — minorities, for example. But minorities want to be owners. They deserve to be owners. African Americans, who represent a large portion and so many contributions to society, deserve to own media outlets in proportion to their population. Latinos, who are growing rapidly, virtually unrepresented in terms of who owns the outlets. Ownership is control, and leased access just doesn’t cut it.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Copps, are you going to hold hearings around the country, the way both of you did when — well, when the son of Colin Powell was in charge, when Michael Powell was in charge?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, we have been attending hearings around the country. We got the chairman to come in only to six hearings this time. We asked for like a dozen, but there are lots of groups, lots of members of Congress, consumer groups and advocacy groups that have been holding hearings, and Jonathan and I have attended a lot of those and are willing to attend a lot more.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do people weigh in right now, as Kevin Martin is pushing through the relaxation of media ownership rules?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, what they should be doing is letting the FCC know exactly how they feel. We have a couple of new commissioners who weren’t there last time. Everybody should know how the public feels, members of Congress. It’s a grassroots effort. It really is. And people should take heart. Last time, we had three million people go on record in opposition to what Chairman Powell was trying to do. I didn’t know there were three million people who even knew there was a place called the FCC when I went there in 2001. They found out, and they found out — you told them, but big media didn’t tell them. Consumer groups, advocacy groups told them. Jonathan and I tried to do our little part in getting that message out. But they understand. When you go around and say, “These are your airwaves,” and you have this little agency on the shores of the Anacostia that’s mucking around with them and going to change how they’re used substantially, and they’re doing it in secret, boy, they get mad. They get very proprietary about it, and they understand that it’s not arcane, it’s not esoteric, it’s public interest.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for joining us, Michael Copps, Jonathan Adelstein, the two FCC dissident commissioners. Thank you.

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