Unwilling to let a tsunami of criticism flush away his cherished plans for media consolidation, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell announced Wednesday the creation of a Localism Task Force and the speedy licensing of non-commercial low-power FM stations.
Powell hopes that his promise to study local media and boost local radio will soothe those calling for a stay of the FCC’s controversial June decision allowing a single media corporation to own newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same city and television stations reaching 45 % of the public nationwide. But those incensed by the ruling are not so easily placated. Powell’s nemesis, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, had this to say about the Chairman’s proposal:
“This proposal is a day late and a dollar short. It highlights the failures of the recent decision to dismantle ownership protections… We should have heeded the calls from over 2 million Americans and so many Members of Congress expressing concern about the impact of media concentration on localism and diversity before we rushed to a vote. We should have vetted these issues before we voted. Instead, we voted; now we are going to vet. This is a policy of ‘ready, fire, aim!'”
“We now hear that there may be localism issues after all. But what’s going to happen while we study localism over the next year? The answer is: deals, deals and more deals. The answer is more standardized and homogenized programming. The answer is more indecency on the people’s airwaves. The answer is less diversity of viewpoint and less coverage of local issues. By refusing to stay our rules, we guarantee a rash of mergers, acquisitions and swaps that cannot be undone because the genie will be out of the bottle long before this new task force reports.”
On July 23, the House voted 400 to 21 to overturn the decision, and the Senate may soon follow suit. The Senate bill will include a provision added by Senator John McCain banning telecommunications companies from financing commissioners’ trips to conventions and trade shows. A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that over the last 8 years the industry has spent over $2.8 million sending FCC officials to vacation destinations where they are wooed into supporting policies that benefit their media-conglomerate sugar daddies. John Nichols of The Nation believes Powell is only tossing a bone to his critics because he has to. Nichols writes:
“There is nothing sincere about the chairman’s ‘commitment’ to localism. He is merely trying to avert Congressional intervention that could prevent him from delivering on the Bush administration’s promise to make it possible for big media corporations (which also happen to be big campaign contributors) to expand their reach at the local and national levels.”
Senator Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND), a leader in the effort to overturn the June ruling, was equally unimpressed with Powell’s supposed concession:
“It remains my intention to force the Senate to vote on the revocation of the FCC’s June 2 rules. The Chairman’s statements today do nothing to remove the need to revoke those rules.
“It is a very curious strategy for the Chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism. It is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. For those concerned about localism, the time to study that issue was before the new rules were issued, not after.
Nevertheless, Powell contends that the June ruling will not necessarily have a negative impact on localism, bizarrely arguing that consolidation and localism have little to do with one another. If the Senate does vote to overturn the June ruling, President Bush has threatened to veto. This comes as no surprise to the Brattleboro Reformer:
“A vibrant democracy demands public access to a diverse range of media voices. But what is democracy to a president ushered into office not by popular vote, but by a Supreme Court decision? What is dissent to an administration that overrides the will of the United Nations to stage a pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation and ignores the pleas of thousands of citizens who pour into the streets throughout the country opposing the war?”