FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was joined by his two Republican colleagues in favor of the proposal, while the commission's two Democrats voted against it.
Martin pushed the vote through despite intense pressure from House and Senate members on Capitol Hill to delay it. The chairman, however, has the support of the White House, which has pledged to turn back any congressional action that seeks to undo the agency vote.
This is a tragic day for American society, and a justice issue for Christians to pray about and to act on. Today’s FCC decision overturned rules designed to support diversity of opinion and competition among news suppliers.
The number of media corporations that dominate our media has shrunk over the past 25 years from 50 to a very few elite conglomerates. Nearly 70 percent of the basic service channels on cable are owned by only a few companies like Comcast, Viacom, AOL Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, and the News Corporation. A significant number of the nearly 300 national television programming networks are owned by just 14 companies. Eighty percent of the country's daily papers are now owned by conglomerates.
The last time the FCC, led by another Republican (Michael K. Powell), attempted to relax the media ownership rules, they lost a major court challenge. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia concluded that the commission had failed to adequately justify the new rules, especially in light of overwhelming public outcry not to go through with the change.
Today’s FCC, chaired by Republican Kevin Martin, went through the motions of having public hearings before this latest decision, though it was very clear that Martin was not truly interested in hearing the public’s opinion. His mind was so made up in spite of public outcry that he wrote an Op/Ed piece for The New York Times last month before the final hearing in Seattle.
Seattle Congressman Jay Inslee, a member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications looked at Martin in a recent congressional hearing and said, “When you have 1,000 people staying till 1:00 at night on a Friday, on the next Tuesday morning in The New York Times we see an op-ed by the chairman saying that he's going to propose rules that would basically ignore the testimony of these hundreds of people in Seattle the Friday before. Now, that troubles me because apparently, this is an op-ed that I can't believe wasn't written before this testimony was even listened to, and my folks in Seattle believe that they were treated like a bunch of chumps out in there that they had the FCC come out, fake like you're listening to them, and the deal was already done.”
The congressional leaders in both the House and Senate were stunned that the FCC would go ahead with the decision today in spite of the opposition from both Republican and Democrats.
In fact, senators from the two parties, Democrat Byron Dorgan and Republican Trent Lott, introduced legislation in November to halt the FCC’s decision to ease media ownership rules.
"We believe localism and diversity of media ownership is vital in a democracy," Senator Dorgan said. "Our bill recognizes the importance of a wide range of media owners and local content, and requires a process that does not rush past those concerns to open the gates for even more consolidation of media ownership. We believe there is value to local ownership in the media."
"Communities count on getting their local news from their locally-owned television stations and weekly and daily newspapers," Senator Lott said. "They know 'locally-owned' means they're invested in their communities and care about their well-being. If the FCC won't do their job to keep East and West coast media conglomerates from pushing out these local voices, then there is a role for the Congress to play."
In Martin’s New York Times op/ed, he proclaimed that we must allow newspaper corporations to buy television stations or radio stations in markets in which they already own newspapers, warning that “if we don’t act to improve the health of the newspaper industry, we will see newspapers wither and die.”
While it is true that newspaper circulation and profits are down, newspaper corporations still generate profit margins that are greater than Fortune 500 corporations. Also, according to Scarborough Research, “When online readers are considered, the story of newspaper readership for many papers transforms from one of slow and steady decline to one of vibrancy and growth.”
It is an injustice that the FCC's Martin has placed the media conglomerates' interest in profit above that of the public interest.
Let’s pray for justice in media ownership. We need mass media that is free to report the news unencumbered by the eye of corporate big money and free from a homogenized view of just a few conglomerates. Diversity of opinion and news-media competition are essential for the public to have a truly free press.
For a helpful in-depth report on this issue, see this video from Bill Moyers:
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