Communications Failure

The FCC's former chairman says the agency is out of control. And he wants you to do something about it.

| Tue Jul. 15, 2003 2:00 AM EDT

When President Clinton nominated Reed Hundt to be Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1993, the political newcomer was speechless. He had laryngitis.

That might have been the only time during Hundt's four-year term that the former anti-trust lawyer had nothing to say. Hundt oversaw the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which changed the face of the media industry. He also oversaw the deregulation of the radio industry -- mandated by Congress despite his opposition.

On June 2, the FCC, now led by Republican Chairman Michael Powell, took the anti-regulatory crusade even further, voting 3-2 to all but wipe away media ownership restrictions. Hundt spoke with Mother Jones about the ruling, which he says has left his friends in Congress "perplexed, dumfounded, outraged, aghast, troubled, mystified, and bewildered," about the transformation of the FCC, and about what can be done to fight the rule changes.

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MotherJones.com: So, the obvious question first. What do you think of the ruling?

Reed Hundt: I think that for those who believe in the marketplace of ideas, it was a day that will live in ignominy.

This isn't about competition. These rules represent an abandonment of the traditional policing function of the FCC. They represent a disregard of the responsibility to promote democracy. They represent a massive refusal to follow the dictates of congress. They represent a fiction surrounding a falsehood.

MJ.com: What can opponents of the ruling do?

RH: Rally together, send emails, tell each other they think the country's on the wrong track, tell pollsters they think the country's on the wrong track, join organizations that believe that and stand up for the country that they deserve and that they want.

MJ.com: How would you like to see the FCC rules change?

RH: I'd like them to have some relationship to reality. I would like to have the FCC say things that are true. Let me give examples. This FCC says that the Internet completely and totally transforms the media landscape. In any given week, Americans spend in total ten times more time looking at the TV screen for news than looking at the PC screen. Point number two: Think about how many people are hired by web portal companies to do investigative journalism. Would the number be greater than zero? Point number three: Think about how many people are hired by web portals even to write news. Would the number be greater than zero?

MJ.com: There are those who would argue, though, that that doesn't necessarily have to be the case, that the technology is there...

RH: Great. Great. Do you know one single company in the United States that actually generates real news without participating in the traditional media where 90 % of all the audience is found? The one rare possible exception would be Slate. I cannot think of any others. Salon.com was supposed to be, but the market has crushed it almost out of existence. And if Slate didn't have Microsoft underwriting it, we wouldn't have Slate, and furthermore, the total amount of investigative journalism done at Slate is close to zero.

For the FCC to engage in the pretense that the new media do that job in competition with or in lieu of the traditional media disregards the fact that 90 percent of all the eyeballs are looking at the traditional media news and 99.9 percent of the news on the internet is just a replication of what was in the traditional media. In some future year, if the facts change, go ahead and change the rules that limit concentration but wait until the reality has caught up with your pipe dream before you change the rules and start supporting monopolization.

MJ.com: Conservatives, who for a long time have argued that the media is liberal, have been the strongest supporters of the ruling. Is this a political power-grab?

RH: How did Newt Gingrich lead the Republicans to take over the House of Representatives? He complained about the traditional media, but because the FCC made sure that minority views could be expressed to the people, Newt Gingrich found a way to get his message across. So he went to the highly fractionated and very diverse radio industry, and in conjunction with a number of other people, basically invented conservative talk radio. And that is the right role of the media in America. To let minority views as well as majority views get expressed to people. To let people decide in a marketplace of ideas whose views they really favor. To let the news reflect different points of view. To have different news organizations investigate the same thing from different perspectives, or different things from different perspectives. That's how you get a pluralistic democracy to work, and that's how we get America to change for the better.

Sometimes progressives don't like it, and sometimes conservatives don't like it. But I like it, and you should like it, and everyone should like it, that we have a chance for minority views to become majority views and that the hegemon does not run the media. And I can assure you that if the Democrats owned the White House and Congress, then the conservatives would be howling about the media monopoly rules. In fact, the NRA is howling already. Why? Because the NRA is very concerned that it can continue to get its views out. And they have every reason to be concerned.

MJ.com: Congress can obviously make a difference in this ... through the FCC reauthorization act.

RH: I think Congress should pass a law, in whatever is the most rapid and feasible manner, that tells the FCC to throw out this new proposed set of rules and adopt rules that reflect the anti-trust law and democracy values.

I hope that happens. I think every single person in American ought to be emailing their Congressman whether she's a Republican, Democrat, or Independent, and tell them to support it. Because it doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on. In the world of politics, sooner or later you're going to have a minority view and you're going to want to get it to become a majority view and if you don't have a diverse media with multiple ways to reach the American people, that's not going to be a possibility for you. And we're all going to be told the same things and think the same things and we're going to ultimately get dangerously out of touch with reality as a country.

MJ.com: You were chairman when the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed, and when the radio industry was deregulated. So you've seen this fight before. What can you tell me about that experience?

RH: I can tell you a lot, but you don't want to hear all of it [laughs]. Well, on this particular topic, Congress ordered that the radio industry be allowed to consolidate. Now most people in Congress on both sides of the aisle regret that. Congress did not order that newspapers and broadcast TV and cable consolidate. They did not do that. And that is why it is contrary to history to say that Congress wants the current rules to have been put in place. That's not true. That's not the case.

Congress from time to time said that I got it wrong and passed laws that changed what I was doing. And they're allowed to say that. That's their job. The FCC and the administrative agencies generally are not part of the executive branch. I don't mean to take us all back to (American government class) in high school, but they're not part of the executive branch. They are the creatures of Congress, the agencies, they do the delegated work of Congress, they get their money from Congress. That is not the same as the Department of Justice. That is not the same as the Department of Commerce. Those are executive branch agencies that work for the White House.

So for this FCC to operate with secrecy more characteristic of the CIA, and refuse to tell anybody what it's going to do, and vote to refuse to release the written document even after the fact... this is more than passing strange. It is absolutely unprecedented, unheard of, bizarre, dangerous, and wrong.

MJ.com: Was the FCC always so overtly influenced by media lobbyists?

RH: The FCC has always been surrounded by a noose of 10,000 lobbyists. That's always been the case. Unless we move the FCC and don't tell anyone where it's gone, that will always be the case. But, the job of the FCC is to listen and then do what's in the people's interest, not what they've been told to do by special interests. I've never seen the FCC so massively indifferent to the public or to Congress before. Congress should pass laws that tell the FCC to shape up or close down.

MJ.com: Finally, is there anything that you regret -- anything that you would have done differently when you were chairman?

RH: You know, it was a long time ago and I try to put regrets behind me, but on this particular topic, I wish that -- If I knew now what I knew then, I wish that we had redone the media ownership rules to anticipate this particular wrong-headed action and I wish we had specifically said no, never should anyone do anything as bad as this new paradigm and I wish we had kind of excluded it.

Frankly, it's so strange that I never anticipated that anyone could do anything like this. The reason it's strange is that they've invented a new rule that pays no attention to either the revenue that a media outlet captures or the audience that it captures and they have acted like channel 45 in Washington is just as important as channel 4 and as if Salon.com, God bless it, was just as important as the Washington Post. And in terms of audience and in terms of revenue and in terms of having the capability to hire reporters and in terms of writing news, these are crazy ideas.

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