Critics Turn Out To Protest Media Consolidation

Jesse Jackson said the Jena 6 case shows the FCC should strengthen locally owned media.
Jesse Jackson said the Jena 6 case shows the FCC should strengthen locally owned media. (By Kevin Wolf -- Associated Press)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Even though the media landscape has changed radically since the last time the Federal Communications Commission tried to alter its media-ownership rules, a hearing at the FCC yesterday showed that the debate remains as heated as ever.

A range of social, political and consumer groups that successfully petitioned a federal court to throw out the FCC's 2003 attempt to relax ownership rules is once again fighting to keep limits on how many radio and television stations conglomerates can buy.

The groups testified as the five-member commission works to update its ownership rules to the court's satisfaction, a task it hopes to accomplish soon.

The FCC began its review of the ownership rules 18 months ago, but protesters were energized to appear at yesterday's hearing by recent statements by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has said he wishes to speed the matter to a conclusion soon.

The issue spurred some street theater outside the FCC building, where a group of about 100 gathered. A squad of activists dressed as cheerleaders donned sweaters reading "FCC" and cheered, "Two, four, six, eight, who do we consolidate?" The group listened to anti-consolidation remarks from Jesse Jackson as well as two FCC commissioners who have worked within the agency to limit media conglomerate growth.

FCC rules govern how many radio and television stations a company can own in a city and how many radio stations a company can own nationally. They also prevent one company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, a rule likely to be lifted during the current review. The FCC, however, has no say in how many cable TV channels or newspapers a company can own, or how many Web sites or music companies it can control.

Nevertheless, media ownership has become a sort of all-comers cause for groups concerned about local ownership of media, female and minority ownership, conservative and liberal bias in media coverage, indecency, the lack of local news programming and the portrayal of race and ethnicity in television programming, all of which are made worse -- the groups argue -- by the continued growth of big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Walt Disney Co. and CBS.

"If the commission truly seeks to enhance localism, it should tighten, not loosen, ownership restrictions," former NPR radio star Bob Edwards said at the hearing. If the FCC relaxes its rules, Edwards said, radio station owners "will adopt a business model that shuts out local news and entertainment in favor of national homogenized programming." Edwards is carried now on XM Satellite Radio.

Broadcast media disagree, arguing that local radio and television news and information are better than ever and that the feared decline of localism under corporate ownership has not occurred.

"Will we ever be able to satisfy all our critics? Not a chance," said Marcellus Alexander, vice president of television at the National Association of Broadcasters. "In fact, the record of these hearings shows we've been accused of everything from causing global warming to the mortgage crisis. As Nell Carter used to say in her show of the same name, 'Gimme a break.' "

During the hearing, FCC Chairman Martin said: "Most broadcasters do a good job of localism, but it has become apparent not all are doing all they should." Martin favors several suggestions to overhaul the ownership rules made by foes of Big Media, such as re-energizing the FCC's plan to license low-power FM radio stations to community groups.

Market changes in the past few years, including the emergence of the Internet as a video source, social-networking groups that serve as news sources, the mobile-device sector, have hurt traditional media.

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