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FCC & Media Ownership
With Chellie Pingree
Common Cause President and CEO

Tuesday, June 03, 2003; 3:30 p.m ET

What is your take on the Federal Communications Commission's plans to relax or eliminate several major media ownership rules? Have the vast array of choices now available to consumers through cable television channels and Web sites made the rules antiquated? Would stripping the regulations away limit minority viewpoints in the media?

Common Cause president and CEO Chellie Pingree was online to discuss the Federal Communications Commission's vote to relax media ownership regulations.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Chellie Pingree: Thank you for inviting us to this online chat. At Common Cause we have been very impressed with the level of concern expressed by many of our 200,000 members and supporters who made their voices heard on the issue of the FCC regulations.

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Collingswood, N.J.: If the FCC goes through with this backward move, what are the means to changing it in the future? Wait until a more grounded administration appoints a more grounded FCC?

Chellie Pingree: Senator McCain is holding hearings tomorrow on Capitol Hill and this could be the beginning of a look from Congress to see what should be overturned or reconsidered.

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Alexandria, Va.: Isn't it true that there's been so much consolidation already (in TV) that the net effect of the new rules may not spur as much of a media-buying frenzy as many fear?

Chellie Pingree: It's possible that initially companies won't go on the same merger spree as they did in the past. However, over the next several years, we can expect a lot of acquisitions of TV stations by newspapers and vice versa, and a lot of buying up of choice media properties in the largest cities. We'll also see independent stations and small station groups finding it more and more difficult to compete.

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Berkeley, Calif.:
Mr. Powell and his fellow Republican commissioners who refused to allow the public any consideration at all are a disgrace to the FCC and to all who believe in a functional democracy. Is there any plausible reason to believe that the FCC is not a captured agency, captured by the big media moguls, especially given the extensive perks the commissioners and staff, according to the Center of Public Integrity, have helped themselves to?

Thanks

Chellie Pingree: I think there's a lot of truth in what you say. While Commissioners are not personally corrupt, they operate in a system that permits great access to large corporate players, and almost no access to the rest of us. It needs to be reformed and the entire approval process needs to be much more transparent.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Weren't the old rules unenforceable because so many were struck down in court?

Chellie Pingree: The courts told the FCC they had to justify their ownership rules, but did require the Commission to jettison them. Many groups -- the Consumer Federation -- the Future of Music Coalition -- to name a few provided the FCC with hard statistical data to justify ownership limits. The FCC opted not to try.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales hinted yesterday that the outcry on radio against the Dixie Chicks was orchestrated by Clear Channel. Do you think this is possible? And, if so, what do the FCC rules changes voted on yesterday portend if the media consolidates further and the temptation to spread a particular ideology becomes too tantalizing for them (those few)?

washingtonpost.com: Michael Powell and the FCC: Giving Away the Marketplace of Ideas (Post, June 2)

Chellie Pingree: We do know that Cumulus Media, also a major owner of radio stations, initiated a CD smashing event of Dixie Chicks CDs. We know that Clear Channel at least indirectly supported pro-Iraq War rallies all over the country, and we know that Rupert Murdoch has been blatantly political in his newspapers and that his network has a definite point of view. (That's different from a paper editorializing or a TV station offering commentary distinct from news coverage.) So the idea that a few corporations could manipulate their news coverage is a very great concern.

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Londonderry, N.H.: Are there any positive results from this decision?

Chellie Pingree: When you bring together groups as disparate as NOW and the NRA, and gotten nearly three quarters of a million people to contact an obscure federal agency, you've got the makings of a tremendous grassroots movement to take back our airwaves and ensure that broadcasters serve the public.

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Ashland, Mo.: Has Common Cause ever supported the deregulation of anything, for example, trucking, airplanes, natural gas, campaign spending?

Chellie Pingree: Probably not, and here's the reason. We believe government has a crucial role to play to ensure that the public interest is protected. That doesn't mean that we think that every government rule is defensible. But in the main, proponents of deregulation tend to be special interests with the most to gain financially. I personally like the idea of government watching out for my personal safety, the financial integrity of my bank, and that democracy is not corrupted by huge campaign contributions from special interests.

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Vienna, Va.: What real options are there to take back the airwaves?

Chellie Pingree: What seems most viable is to engage citizens in a variety of grassroots actions that make clear their opposition to any more media consolidation -- organizing citizens, for example, to oppose a change of ownership at their local TV station or their local newspaper being purchased by a media conglomerate. We also need to educate Congress on the issue and to make this issue a part of the debate during the presidential primaries and campaign. We then have to come up with concrete reforms that Congress can enact, This will take time, but working together, we can change the media environment.

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Baltimore, Md.: There have been rumblings of the Congress trying to undo the FCC ruling via legislation. What are the chances of this happening?

Chellie Pingree: Realistically, that's probably not too likely. However, we may want to aim for something much larger than restoring the current ownership rules, which were not that great to begin with. This vote really gives us a chance to push for more comprehensive legislation that changes the way media companies operate in this country.

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Seattle, Wash.: A concern at least as fundamental as the decision is that the process itself was a charade (with dissenters on the panel having to raise their own money for local hearings, and the majority flying about at coporate expense), and that no concern we express will impact the decision making. Are you more optimistic than that?

Chellie Pingree: You're right, The process was shameful, and the FCC thumbed its nose at the American public. But if citizens press this issue forcefully enough, Congress will pay attention. No politician can afford to ignore the views of hundreds of thousands of hiis constitutents for long.

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Arlington, Va.: I can NOT believe that you stated that the Berkley, CA commenter's statement that FCC Commissioners and staff have "enjoyed significant perks" and are bought by media moguls is accurate. You have revealed yourself as completely uninformed. There are NO perks that they enjoy. If this commenter and you are referring to the "travel article," you need to reread it and recheck your facts! All federal agencies allow companies to cover travel costs for OFFICIAL BUSINESS. How else do you think federal employees would be able to do their job, get to other parts of the country, and talk to the public and people outside of the beltway! The majority of these trips benefit the public. Federal Agency travel budgets are not large, certainly not large enough to allow for federal officials to get enough outside-the-beltway exposure. Additionally, the article clearly stated that all travel is run through ethics experts in the General Counsel's office. The FCC is not "purchased" by big business. The media ownership record proves this. If you were informed you would know that there are more comments on the record by individuals then by big business. They were totally accessible to the public throughout this entire process!

Chellie Pingree: well, we certainly have struck a sore point. We've said the process is corrupt, not the individuals in it. Common Cause worked unsuccessfully on federal legislation that would have required the government to pay for all trips and expenses of agency employees, and not permitted those expenses to be picked up by the industries they are regulating. If we don''t let the cop on the beat accept dinners from the restaurant owners he's protecting, why would we tolerate this system? We have no doubt that FCC employees are honest, but that doesn't mean that having industry pick up the tab for your trips is a good thing. And industry undoubtedly buys good will and gets the chance to make its case in the best possible light. Yes, the FCC technically received nearly 750,000 comments from individuals, but there is no evidence that FCC Chairman Powell paid any notice to them.

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Vienna, Va,: Do you see this being worked at the Congressional level mainly? Or are there options to press this at the local government level?

Chellie Pingree: I think the opportunities for political action now seem focused on Congress, but that may change. And certainly, there are many actions that activists can take at the local level that could help shape the debate. We will be working with and consulting a variety of local and national groups to get their views of how best to proceed.

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Alexandria, Va.: What's the likelihood that Sen. Kerry will be successfull in getting the Congress to overturn the FCC vote?

Chellie Pingree: Right now, the political prospects don't look terribly good, but things can change. Certainly, this is a volatile issue right now. But House Commerce Committee Billy Tauzin is strongly opposed, so that would make passage more difficult.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I asked about the unenforceable old rules. I'm confused. You say the FCC did not justify new limits, but I thought that what they did yesterday is set new limits. Why do people think that there are no more rules?

Chellie Pingree: Sorry for the confusion. The FCC could have justified the rules which it relaxed yesterday, but opted not to do that.

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Lyme, Ct.: Are these media giants active in making campaign contributions? If so, do you have figures in how much they've been contributing?

Chellie Pingree: According to a Common Cause analysis, the 15 companies that reach the largest share of U.S. households gave more than $13 million in political contributions to federal candidates and national political parties since 1997. These same companies spent more than $68 million lobbying Washington during the same period.

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Montclair, N.J.: Do you think the relaxation of media regulations is a part of a greater trend to impose a single viewpoint on everyone? What recourse is there left to us who don't want to have our airwaves dominated by groupthinking, repeat-after-me stories?

Chellie Pingree: I think that is a great concern. Media companies aren't embroiled ina huge conspiracy to make us think the same way, but they have a bottom line reason for wanting to homogenize the news they present. So that local news, which really ought to be about local issues, may get reported by a news team working far away from a community, and you can get fill in the blank type reports -- not real journalism that helps citizens understand the dynamics of their own locale.

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Vienna, Va.: Sen Dorgan plans to introduce an FCC disapproval resolution soon. What is this about?

Chellie Pingree: Senator Dorgan has been very critical of media consolidation. He and a number of other Senators are exploring ways that Congress can undo what the FCC did yesterday.

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Baltimore, Md.: Chellie, Thanks for taking the time. What sort of regulations would you like to see put in place?

Chellie Pingree: There are so many reforms to explore. Certainly, we have to make the FCC rulemaking process more transparent, so that the public is entitled to see the proposed rules before the FCC votes on them. We may want to consider bringing back the Fairness Doctrine which required broadcasters to inform the public about issues of importance to them and to cover those issues in a fair and balanced way, including a number of diverse viewpoints.

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Washington, D.C.: As much as I abhor the faulty process, the double-talk on behalf deregulation supporters and yesterday's ultimate decision, I wonder if there is a happier medium than what both sides have argued to this point. Though I disagree with the notion, for example, that the Internet provides competition to network TV, I think we should also be wary of holding on to soon-to-be-obsolete technology for the sake of what that technology meant to Americans decades ago (short-wave radio comes to mind). Does Common Cause see any value in making changes to ownership rules in light of any particular recent technological advance? If so, where?

Chellie Pingree: You're right. There may be room for rules changes as technology changes. But that debate has not happened. The FCC largely accepted the arguments of media conglomerates, did not develop its own data, and made its decision based largely on what media giants felt they needed to maximize their profits.

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Springfield, Mo.: Last night's CBS Evening News relegated this story to the middle of the broadcast and devoted less than one minute to its coverage. Will there be any effort to call the major news outlets to account for their shoddy treatment of an outraged public?
Even if editors thought the story itself wasn't important, the public perception of this issue should have been.

Chellie Pingree: This has been a real problem. The media largely ignored this story until a few days before it happened, and even then some networks gave only cursory attention to it. That's what makes our web site www.commoncause.org -- and the web sites of many other groups so important. Moveon.org mobilized hundreds of thousands of people without the help of the mass media, so it can be done.

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Washington, D.C.: There is no "vast array" of choices. With the exception of a few publicly owned radio stations all the rest in the D.C. market stink and have terrible programming. The same 25 songs heard 100 times a day. How can we even TELL what the choices might be when a handful of media tyrants plan on owning everything? Who cares about "news efficiency" or making sure these giants are able to "grow?" If the news conglomerates aren't as profitable as they'd like to be -- maybe its time to unload some stuff rather than change the rules to acquire more.

I see no benefit of this ruling to the PEOPLE of this country -- only a benefit to the owners of the media companies.

Chellie Pingree: You're absolutely right. But we have to turn our rage into action so that we can change the media landscape and make our media regulation work for us, not against us.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi, Chellie Pingree!

I'm a former Mainer who was watching your run for Senate with great interest. I was disappointed about the results. Common Cause's gain was possible only because of the Senate's loss.

About the FCC decision: once the damage is done, how on earth can it be undone? Do you think undoing this will reequire legislation? A court decision? Are we looking at a media version of the baby Bells sometime in the future, should it become clear that media monopolies are not in the public interest?

Chellie Pingree: Thank you for your kind words. I am very happy to be working at Common Cause and engaged on these very exciting issues. The damage can be undone, and I'm sure there will be litigation on this issue as well as Congressional attention paid to it. Commissioner Adelstein said yesterday that what the FCC did yesterday was awake a sleeping giant. The American public can make a difference.

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Waynesburg, Pa.: Don't you think the biggest challenge facing researchers is determining how to measure content diversity? And if so, how can that be done?

Chellie Pingree: The FCC has developed a "diversity index" which the public has not seen and which is not supposed to be applied to measure diversity in specific markets, so I fail to understand its usefulness. The bottom line is that we know when we do not have diversity, and that's when a handful of companies own most of the majoro media outlets in the country.

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Washington, D.C.: So what you are telling me is that you and Moveon.org were able to reach millions without mass media attention. And yet without keeping these antiquated rules we will be helpless to the corporate conglomerates that will squash the little voices from being heard?

Sorry, but that doesn't square up with me.

Chellie Pingree: The public requires sources of information that are unbiased and diverse. The fact that some percentage of the public is able to find the information it needs through websites on the Internet is helpful, but does not eliminate the public's need for its mass media to serve its information needs. And since the public, not any corporation, owns the broadcast airwaves, it is the public's right to hear diverse voices. And these voices are not being heard.

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Washington, D.C.: What in your view can be done at the local level to ensure that local stations continue to program in the public interest as was the original intent for all broadcast license holders? If you think broadcast programming is distasteful now, just wait as they continue to lower the bar.

Chellie Pingree: Let your station know what you expect of them. Let local corporate sponsors know as well. Write letters to the editor. Do whatever you can to get other people to join you in these efforts.

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Columbus, Ohio: You mentioned the problem of news organizations failing to report this story. Under the past ownership rules the story was not reported. The problem seems to be more with the companies that own stations than the number of stations owned. What approaches to increasing diversity of ownership does Common Cause advocate?

Chellie Pingree: The problem is, when you relax the ownership caps, you permit the networks to gobble up small stations. Independent stations that don't want to sell out are under great competitive pressure.We know that small station groups do a better job covering news, particularly local news.

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Chellie Pingree: Thank you all for your questions. Please check our web site and become an actvist of this issue!

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