Thursday, November 1, 2007

The FCC, the public and media ownership

In 1996, the Telecommunications Act made major changes in the regulation of the media and in 2003, the FCC further relaxed the rules governing media ownership. In 2004, the US Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit) placed a hold against those changes taking effect. A summary appeared on my blog in August: here.

Now, once again, the FCC appears to be in a secretive, headlong rush to relax ownership rules "by Christmas," as detailed in this October 18th article in the New York Times. Thankfully, Senators from both parties appear inclined to hold the FCC at bay, according to this October 25 article in TV Week.

Although the commentary window to respond to the FCC's recently released research studies on media ownership has closed, the FCC says that it will continue to accept public comments into rulemaking Docket 06-121, as "ex parte communications." The FCC also claims that these comments will be reviewed along with material submitted prior to the deadlines.

The FCC explains the commentary process here and provides a link to submit inputs electronically, here. Select the button for "Media Ownership Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking - Docket 06-121" and click "continue."

To put a fine point on why this is important, American democracy depends upon a free and open media that helps the public understand the issues of the day and to make informed decisions in elections, not to mention that the media has an impact on public safety. Yet, coupled with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, there is less and less assurance that the public will have the information they need. It's ironic that people have to access foreign sources like the BBC and the Guardian to find out what's happening here in the US.

Let's look at a few instructive cases where the media stopped telling the story and became the story:

  • As you watch the 2008 round of presidential debates, have you wondered why only the front-runners are being questioned?

  • When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up in February 2003, small market radio stations were broadcasting feeds from centralized locations far away. When rural Texas farmers called their local stations, wondering what was falling through the atmosphere, they got voicemail.

  • Speaking of space, did you know that the Chinese launched a moon mission on October 23

  • American newspapers and news magazines, including Time, ran stories about the British judge who recently found "nine significant errors" in Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth. But they didn't tell the entire story. In fact, the UK's Observer reported that the case was brought by Stewart Dimmock, who was supported by the unknown "New Party" of Scotland. The New Party's head, a mining executive, co-authored a 2004 report attacking climate change, with a secretary to Tony Blair and with the George C Marshall Institute, funded by Exxon Mobil. This puts the case in a different light.

  • "Fair and balanced" Fox admits right-wing bias. Most people don't know that Fox president Roger Ailes has been a consultant to the Republican party and advisor to all Republican presidential administrations since the 1970s.

As media companies consolidate, the number of voices in the media declines. As these corporations look for ways to maximize profits, it is well documented that news operations have been consolidated or eliminated altogether. No longer does the media feel an obligation toward public service. The tombstones of the media are dated 1987 (the end of the Fairness Doctrine) and 1996 (with the passage of the Telecommuncations Act).

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