TCS Daily

Media Static

By Duane D. Freese - June 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Talk about a lot of static. The Federal Communications Commission has been getting plenty for its consideration of new media ownership rules due out today.

From the left, such voices as Common Cause, Consumer Federation of America and the American Prospect have complained the commission is out to gut diversity.

"Mass media are a very special kind of product, because they involve not just commerce but speech. Congress and the courts have long endeavored to ensure that a wide diversity of voices will be heard," Robert Kuttner intoned in a column in the Boston Globe last Wednesday. "That is about to change for the worse next week, when the Federal Communications Commission is expected, by a 3-2 vote, to throw out several decades of regulation limiting media monopolies. ..."

"(FCC Chairman Michael) Powell's proposed rules change is a witches' brew that mixes the interests of big conglomerate business with big right-wing politics. The more concentrated the media are, the more money ultraconservative media moguls can make, and the more dissenting voices get squeezed out."

Those Kuttner would view on the ultraconservative right, meanwhile, are just as hyperbolic.

"Further deregulation will not mean greater opportunity for competition. Rather, it will mean the opposite: More control of the airwaves by the few, with even less accountability to the market than they demonstrate today," L. Brent Bozell III, of the Media Research Project ventilated in The Washington Dispatch. "The concept of community standards is alien to the suits in New York. Their bottom-line programming philosophy means bottom-of-the-barrel programming, and quality be damned."


These complaints would make a lot more sense if the D.C. federal appeals court hadn't thrown out five of the six rules the FCC is considering modifying as lacking proper legal rationale. As Scott Cleland of the Precursor Group told The New York Times last year, "The big picture is that the court believes that media restrictions are generally an abridgment of free speech and are arbitrary and capricious."

Do Kuttner and Bozell want the FCC to just forget about what the court said - become a lawless agency? That seems a more frightening prospect for America and its constitutional culture to me than the modest changes in ownership rules the FCC will undertake to deal with the court's rulings.

Especially considering what the changes are. If they come out as reported, they would amount to this (I apologize for their esoteric nature, but that's the way bureaucratic rulemaking is):

First, the FCC is expected to raise the national television ownership cap from 35 percent, where it was put in 1941 when the nation was about half rural rather than the 90 percent metropolitan it is today, to 45 percent.

Secondly, the FCC will allow one company to own two television stations in markets with at least six competitors. There used to be only three television networks and three stations in the largest cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Who's going to notice any real change there?

Finally, the agency is expected to combine two existing "cross-ownership" rules: one that prevents a company from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city, which was applied in 1975 but grandfathered in about 40 cross ownerships at the time, and one that involves joint radio and television station ownership in the same market. In those situations, the FCC will allow cross-ownership in large and medium markets and impose restrictions or prohibitions in small markets.

Thus will diversity be cast asunder by an FCC serving the ultraconservative-left-wing liberal media interests. Uh-huh.

In truth, any media consolidation under these new guidelines is likely to be modest. As TCS contributor Bruce Fein, a former general counsel for the FCC, told the New York Post, "I think there will be two dampening effects on consolidation. One, we don't have an exuberant economy; and two, there hasn't been an analysis of the antitrust" ramifications.

Antitrust laws have not been revoked. So, any mergers will undergo scrutiny by antitrust regulators both at the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department. That limits the likelihood of one or two media conglomerates dishing out all of the nation's news and views.

An even bigger limitation on that likelihood occurring is new technology and modern means of delivery of information to the people.

At a New America Foundation forum on broadband last week, Consumer Federation of America research director Mark Cooper sounded like a man cocooned in a time machine, as he dismissed the impact of the Internet and modern technology upon diversity in viewpoints.

"You cannot tell me the Internet is equivalent to broadcast signals ... this is a bunch of bunk," he argued in a discussion that also involved TCS Host James Glassman, James Snider of NAF and Randolph May of the Progress and Freedom Forum. "There is scarcity in speech and that is the central concern."

Scarcity in speech? Compared to what?

Such a dismissal of the power of the Internet and New Media, while iconoclastic, is hardly realistic. As May and Glassman pointed out, media ownership restrictions were put into place when there were three networks and most towns had one local daily paper to provide the bulk of broadcast news - now there are five broadcast voices, supplemented by local daily and weekly papers, along with thousands of sources of information on the Internet.

NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw, as Cooper argued, may speak to 11 million people a night, but his words will be checked and rechecked not only by his editors but by people arguing about it over the net.

The only real scarcities in the media ownership field are those of spectrum and competition in broadband.

One point that Snider made at the forum is that broadcasters were able, through Congress, to get a lot of spectrum to sit on for developing HDTV. It has created a period of artificial scarcity in spectrum for other uses, such as higher tech cell phone. That's why Cingular Wireless, of which Regional Bell Operating Companies SBC and Bell South are major partners, appears ready to pay as much as $1.8 billion to the bankrupt Next Wave to get spectrum it has licensed.

But As the FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force noted last fall, increased use of digital technologies and the development of software-defined radios provide potential answers to such spectrum shortage.

"These technological advances enable spectrum rights to be parceled as a function of time," the task force reported. "Also, they allow systems to be much more tolerant of interference than in the past."

And coupled with competition in broadband over telephone and cable lines - something, as Glassman noted, the FCC needs to preserve now that it is starting to take root - the channels available for artists, opinion makers, politicians and business people to reach an audience or a market could multiply many times in coming years.

Rather than media ownership rules, the FCC needs to develop rules of the road for spectrum to make sure that more of that pathway is open to unlicensed use.

Indeed, by cleaning up the static over the air waves while providing spectrum for everyone, it can eliminate the static it gets from left- and right-wing worry warts fearful that media consolidation will lead to their own minority points of view being tuned out.

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