Prior to voting for a sweeping change to media ownership rules June 2, FCC commissioners offered insight into their thinking that drew on their sense of legal responsibility, personal ideological positions, unprecedented public response and childhood experiences. (For details on changes to the rules, please read FCC votes to change media ownership rules).
For his part, Commission Chairman Michael Powell suggested that leaving the status quo was not an option. “I must punctuate one irreducible point: Keeping the rules exactly as they are, as some so stridently suggest, was not a viable option,” Powell said. “Without today’s surgery, the rules would assuredly meet a swift death. As the only member of this Commission here during the last biennial review, I watched first hand as we bent to political pressure and left many rules unchanged. Nearly all were rejected by the court because of our failure to apply the statute faithfully. I have been committed to not repeating that error, for I believe the stakes are perilously high. Leaving things unaltered, regardless of changes in the competitive landscape, is a course that only Congress can legitimately chart.”
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy took guidance from her concern over protecting the First Amendment. “Those opposing today’s order have also emphasized that four companies air the programming that is chosen by approximately 75 percent of viewers during primetime,” Abernathy explained. “To me, the critical fact is that these providers control no more than 25 percent of the broadcast and cable channels in the average home, even apart from the Internet and other pipelines. Given these other viewing options, I can only presume that this means that Americans are watching these providers because they prefer their content, not because they lack alternatives. It would be anathema to the First Amendment to regulate media ownership in an effort to steer consumers toward other programming.”
Commissioner Kevin Martin drew on his own family’s experience to frame his argument. “I recall having extremely limited choices on our family television set when I was growing up,” he said. “There was no cable. There was no satellite. Even with our roof antenna, we received just five channels—the three major networks, one independent, and one public television station. Our national news was delivered to us by the three networks for one-half hour, straight from New York City, at the same time every evening. No CNN, FOX, MSNBC, or CNBC. Local news was broadcast by the local stations just once at 6 and once at 11. And at that time, news from 24-hour local cable channels was far off on the horizon.
“While my parents still live in the same house, they now have access to seven broadcast networks, hundreds of digital cable channels (including a local cable news channel), many more radio stations, and thousands of sites on the Internet. Indeed, people today have access to more information from more diverse sources than at any time in our history.”
In dissenting with the majority, Commissioner Michael Copps said communications policy was at a crossroads. “Two very divergent paths beckon us,” he explained. “Down one road is a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to local control of our media, diversity in news and editorial viewpoint, and the importance of competition. This path implores us not to abandon core values going to the heart of what the media mean in our country. On this path we reaffirm that FCC licensees have been given very special privileges and that they have very special responsibilities to serve the public interest.
“Down the other road is more media control by ever fewer corporate giants. This path surrenders to a handful of corporations awesome powers over our news, information and entertainment. On this path we endanger time-honored safeguards and time-proven values that have strengthened the country as well as the media.”
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pointed to the view of the public about media consolidation in his dissent. “Judging from our record, public opposition is nearly unanimous, from ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, and virtually everyone in between,” he said. “We have received about three-quarters of a million comments from the public in opposition to relaxing our ownership rules, a new record, and only a handful in support. Of the hundreds of citizens I heard from directly at field hearings across the country, not one stood up to call for relaxing the rules. Of the thousands of e-mails I personally received, I saw only one didn’t oppose allowing further media concentration.
"The American people appear united in believing that media concentration has gone too far already and should go no further. I’ve heard it said we can’t make this decision by polls or by weighing postcards. Fair enough."
"But the statute doesn’t let us simply dismiss the public’s views with a passing reference in one paragraph, as this item currently does. The public apparently has no interest in further media concentration. Does the majority really know what’s better for the public than the three quarters of a million citizens who are motivated enough to contact the Commission or attend field hearings?"
"We should not assume that those people who took the time to alert us to their deep-seated concerns, with 99.9 percent in opposition, are wrong unless there is overwhelming evidence proving it. Here, just the opposite is true. There is plenty of evidence the people are right.”
To see the full text of the Commissioners’ comments, please visit: www.fcc.gov/mb.
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