It's down to the wire: Will the Federal Communications Commission vote to relax media ownership rules, or will a growing coalition of activists and lawmakers be able to stop them?
The FCC is scheduled to take its vote on Monday, unless last-ditch efforts to the delay the vote are successful. On the table are rules that prevent a single company from owning both a television station and a newspaper in the same market, rules that prevent a single company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national viewing audience, and what remains of rules limiting the number of radio stations a single company can own in a given market.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act made sweeping changes to the broadcast landscape. It eliminated the national cap on radio ownership and significantly loosened rules on local ownership. Since it was enacted, hundreds of radio stations have been bought up by a handful of companies. There is widespread concern that television ownership will follow the same trend, and that a single newsroom could soon be the only source of news for many American communities.
Last March, Duke Law School hosted one of only a handful of FCC hearings nationwide to discuss the impact on local communities. In the weeks since that hearing, a contingent of North Carolinians has joined a broad-based national coalition that is gaining strength in Washington.
Jim Goodmon, owner of Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, which owns WRAL and Fox 50, was a featured speaker at the FCC hearing at Duke. WRAL currently has a news-sharing agreement with The News & Observer, but Goodmon says he is against the plan to allow a single company to own both a television station and a local newspaper.
On May 13, Goodmon spoke before the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC. He later spoke before the Values Action Team, a group of Republican congressmen. In a phone interview following his speeches in Washington, Goodmon related the gist of his testimony. "We need as much diversity and as much localism and as much competition as possible. And I'm just going to keep saying it." Goodmon has been lobbying local lawmakers to step in. "What we're saying is that it's hopeless at the FCC, that they're going to raise all the caps and let all the big companies own more stations. So we're now trying to work on it in Congress."
Angered that FCC Chairman Michael Powell refused to delay the FCC vote in order to make time for more public debate, 100 members of Congress and 15 senators signed letters last month urging Powell to delay the vote. They also introduced legislation to force a delay, though that looks unlikely to pass in time.
So this month, they took more decisive action. U.S. Rep. Richard Burr (R-Winston-Salem), who also testified at the hearing at Duke, introduced bipartisan legislation that would preserve one of the crucial ownership caps regardless of the FCC's vote. HR 2052, also called the "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Service Act of 2003," would prohibit any company from owning stations that cumulatively reach more than 35 percent of the national television audience. Powell wants to raise that cap to 45 percent. U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Chapel Hill) is lead sponsor of the bill, and a total of eight North Carolina representatives are behind it.
Another North Carolinian is playing a crucial role at the FCC--Commissioner Kevin Martin, a Republican from Charlotte who is expected to deliver the swing vote. (Martin's wife, Catherine, is now Vice President Dick Cheney's public affairs adviser.) But if Martin toes the administration's party line, he will find himself opposed by many members of the GOP.
The growing opposition to Powell's FCC majority seems to be drawing from two camps. On one hand, you have what might be called a conservative branch of the conservative party, Republicans put off by the Bush administration's pro-monopolistic policies; on the other, you have a wide coalition on the left that has channeled the momentum of the anti-war movement. MoveOn.Org's recent e-mail campaign has done much to draw attention to the issue.
So has Code Pink, which is organizing protest rallies across the country at the offices of Clear Channel Communications, a multinational radio conglomerate that owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide and stands to gobble up even more if the FCC loosens the rules. The San Antonio-based company, which has ties to the Bush administration, drew much criticism for banning the Dixie Chicks from its playlists following singer Natalie Maines' criticism of the president.
Clear Channel makes the connection between who owns broadcast stations and what opinions they broadcast startlingly clear and direct, which has provided ammunition for critics of consolidation.