Media Ownership Surprise: The People Respond!

In my last Big Picture column, written just after the FCC's June 2 media ownership vote, I questioned the possibility of a public backlash over the FCC's action with Ben Bagdikian, author of the book, The Media Monopoly. I asked the question more out of frustration than possibility, and Mr. Bagdikian gave the chances of a public outcry very little chance of altering FCC policy.

How wrong we both were! The public outrage over the FCC's action came in at hurricane force, and -- in what may become one of the most remarkable events in modern media politics -- there's now an excellent possibility that the Congress may not only reverse the FCC's media ownership rules, but begin some long overdue reforms targeting the commission itself.

More than 750,000 viewers and readers of media told the FCC they opposed loosening media ownership requirements. By a majority vote of one, the three Republicans on the FCC ignored those protests and changed the rules anyway. It turned out to be a huge political snafu.

FCC commissioners are appointed, not elected. FCC Chairman Michael Powell's arrogant dismissal of the opposition and tin political ear apparently shocked even his own Republican supporters in Congress. The Senate Commerce Committee, led by Powell supporter Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), wasted little time approving legislation that reverses the FCC's ownership ruling.

A week later, the committee took further revenge with a measure that would prohibit FCC officials from taking trips to trade shows and conferences paid for by media companies and advocacy groups.

That one has to hurt big time! (The Bellagio Hotel is so nice to kick back in at NAB.) It's also a huge victory for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, a watchdog group that discovered FCC members and their staff have received more than 2,500 trips costing some $2.8 million since 1995 paid for by the industries that are regulated by the agency.

The way all this came about has some significant roots in my home state of South Carolina. Democratic Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, who sponsored the legislation with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to roll back the FCC's ownership rules, has long been worried that large media companies were accumulating too much power.

Sometimes it takes a personal experience to have such trends hit home. For Sen. Hollings, it happened one day when he tried to listen to radio in his hometown of Charleston, S.C. Not only couldn't he find any programming he liked, but everything sounded the same.

During a conversation with the senator several years ago, I recall his complaining about the declining quality of radio in our home state. He had learned that 14 of the top 20 stations in Charleston were then owned by only two companies. "I can tell you right now there's no choice at all, other than public radio," he railed.

Since then Hollings has written and spoken extensively about the lack of media diversity. In 2001, he and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) co -- authored an op -- ed article for the Washington Post titled "Your Local Station, Signing Off." Both senators escalated their activism on media ownership issues with the recent FCC debate.

It should also be noted that in 1970, a young graduate of Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. came to Washington, D.C. to begin a new job as chief of staff for Hollings. His name was Michael Copps, and he would become very close to Hollings, heading his staff for over a dozen years.

It was Sen. Hollings who in 2001 sponsored Michael Copps for his seat on the FCC. And it was Copps, along with fellow Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, who raised the public consciousness level on media ownership in the weeks prior to June 2 through public hearings around the nation.

Still, no one thought the Democrats had a serious chance of blocking the Republican juggernaut to write new ownership rules. Even though it appears the legislation blocking the FCC's rules has a good chance of passing the Senate this summer, the prospect in the House has been another story. Rep. Billy Tauzin, (R-La.) chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has publicly stood behind Powell.

However, New York Times columnist William Safire, an influential conservative who has opposed the new ownership rules in print and has made eerily correct predictions on the story in the past few weeks, thinks the House -- with the help of key Republicans -- will favor the Senate on rolling back the rules. A key man in the House to watch, said Safire, is Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Not only has Burr introduced in the House a rollback bill similar to the Hollings/Stevens measure in the Senate, but already has a majority of co-sponsors on Tauzin's committee.

Burr is of great interest to the Republicans, noted Safire, because he plans to challenge North Carolina's Democratic Sen. John Edwards in 2004 unless Edwards resigns to run for president. "National exposure as the congressman who stopped the power grab would help Burr pick up a Senate seat for the G.O.P., central to Bush hopes for a successful second term," Safire argued.

An issue so vital to the television broadcast industry is now in a fog, its fate to be determined by forces that have little to do with the making of broadcast policy. It was an issue that "conventional wisdom" wrongfully thought the general public didn't care about-one too obscure to draw much attention.

One who turned out to understand was the FCC's newest member, Adelstein, who predicted the FCC might be surprised with what it was about to unleash. "We have in our hands a lit match, and we're moving closer to a powder keg of public anger that may be about to explode," he said.

Explode it did.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.