A member of the Federal Communications Commission said yesterday that he will hold additional public hearings on possible changes to the agency's rules on media ownership, saying that "most Americans are not even aware that this is teed up for debate."
Commissioner Michael J. Copps also called on the FCC to establish a procedure to accept anonymous testimony from media and entertainment industry employees fearful of losing their jobs if they testify against media consolidation.
The FCC already has scheduled a public hearing about the media rules for Feb. 27 in Richmond. Yesterday, Copps announced that additional, unofficial hearings would be held in early March at the University of Washington in Seattle and later in the month at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
The FCC is reexamining its rules on media ownership as part of a regular, congressionally mandated review. Among other things, current laws place a cap on the number of affiliate stations a television network can own.
"It has been a revelation to me that there are media professionals with strong feelings about the downsides of consolidation for the American people who are afraid to speak for fear of retribution," Copps said in an address yesterday at Fordham University in New York. "If this is true then we need to find a way for them to be heard without fear of retribution."
The FCC has provisions for accepting anonymous testimony from witnesses who fear reprisals, but the specifics of Copps's proposal must be examined by the agency's lawyers, an agency spokesman said.
Copps favors multiple public hearings to tap into expertise on media ownership in individual markets. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell and others back the hearings in theory but say they believe input can more efficiently be compiled via e-mail, without using the agency's limited budget to ferry commissioners and staff around the country.
The issue of the hearings has produced something of a Cold War between Powell and Copps. Powell, who hopes to have a vote on any rule changes before summer, said yesterday in a statement that the FCC has received 13,000 comments from the public on media ownership. "This record clearly demonstrates that in the digital age, you don't need a 19th-century whistle-stop tour to hear from America," he said.
Copps responded: "To imagine that we can sit around and count on the Internet or new tools or technology without lifting a finger ourselves is to not live up to the outreach responsibility that I think we have."
Media corporations are lobbying for the ownership rules to be lifted, saying that money-losing networks could benefit from buying additional television stations, for instance.
On the other side are consumer groups, entertainment industry guilds and unaligned members of the public pressing to keep the ownership rules intact. They fear that lifting them would aid additional corporate consolidation that would diminish economic and creative opportunities for artists and create a sameness among media outlets.