Dispatches from the Media Reform Front

Harold Feld,
senior VP, Media Access Project, reports from the run-up to the media reform conference in Memphis in the following guest blog:

Commissioner Adelstein had warm words for the academic community willing to contribute to the FCC media ownership debate, but harsh words of criticism for how the FCC currently uses research to make its decisions.

At a keynote address at the academic “Pre-Conference” at the Memphis Convention Center co-sponsored by Free Press and the Social Sciences Research Center the day before the Free Press National Conference on Media Reform, Adelstein urged activists and academics to work together to bring the “inconvenient truth” about the impacts of consolidation to the FCC and Congress.  He harshly criticized the current Commission for engaging in “faith based regulation,” accusing the Commission of writing “advocacy pieces” rather than engaging in “fact based” research and analysis.

Adestein described a world in which, since the Reagan administration, the FCC has virtually eliminated industry reporting requirements and instead relies on “academic hired guns” and a vast “PR machine” to persuade policymakers. For their part, policymakers at the FCC have proven “complicit,” accepting the corporate research and framing of the ownership debate without question.

The result, said Adelstein, is an “expert agency starved for data” about the industry it regulates. As a result, FCC research and reports are either devoid of real analysis or actively push the agenda of industry at the expense of the public.

Adelstein singled out the research supporting the recent FCC Order preempting local franchising authorities and the media ownership studies announced by the FCC as prime examples of “faith based policymaking.”  Adelstein complained that he had repeatedly asked staff for real world examples of franchising abuses, but they offered none.  Instead the majority “trusted the word of big corporations rather than of the public or their elected officials.”

Adelstein also criticized the Commission for outsourcing 7 of the ten media studies to researchers who, with the exception of Professor Allen Hammond, had no background in media issues.  He complained that he had received no notification before the public notice on the studies was issued and no explanation for how the Commission had selected the researchers.  He urged the assembled activists and academics to push for “real peer review” of the studies before release, saying the FCC is considering how to conduct peer review of the papers.

At the same time, despite this “depressing picture,” Adelstein found cause for hope.  He applauded what activist and academics had already done to “awaken the sleeping giant” of the American public on this issue.  Further, with the change brought about by the ;ast election, Adelstein expects Congress to be “more open” to “fact based, reality based” research on the impacts of media ownership. 

But to triumph over the huge resources and special access media and telecom corporations enjoy, activists and academics would need to work together in a coordinated and politically strategic fashion.  While a difficult challenge, Adelstein expressed confidence in the people gathered at the conference to succeed:
“This much brain power should make the media conglomerates shake in their boots.” Said Adelstein.

In response to a question from the audience, Adelstein reported that staff complained of being “squeezed” and unable to participate fully in debates because political pressure at the FCC suppressed views contrary to those of industry.

Adelstein also promised, in response to a different question, that he and Commissioner Copps would hold public hearings on cable public access (PEG), specifically on the impact of state franchising and the FCC’s recent action, and what the FCC can do to strengthen public access.

Guest Blogger Harold Feld, senior VP, Media Access Project