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FCC Wades Into Media Ownership

Academics took aim at the media ownership review process Monday in the first of three workshops at the Federal Communications Commission this week as the agency begins its congressionally mandated quadrennial review of media-ownership rules.

Advice ran the gamut from suggesting that, beyond the current antitrust laws, the goverment had no business regulating the ownership of media outlets -- former Republican commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth -- to suggestions that the FCC might be able to regulate the media virtually at will if it could be justified as advancing the democratic role of the media.

There will be two more workshops this week, on Tuesday (Nov. 3) featuring public interest group input, and Wednesday (Nov. 4), with members of industry.

The commission must review all its rules every four years to gauge whether they are "necessary in the public interest." In addition, the FCC has appeals and numerous court challenges to its decision to loosen the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rules to deal with. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held off its call until the FCC had a chance to weigh in.

Media Bureau chief Bill Lake said the goal of all the workshops was not necessarily figuring out not so much "where we should go out as much as where we go in."

There was no opportunity for public comment at the workshop, but Lake said there would be at future venues, while FCC commissioner Michael Copps hoped there would soon be a media ownership blog similar to one created for the issue of network neutrality and the FCC's proposed rulemaking.

The only commissioner in attendance, Copps has been the most passionate and vocal about the issue of media consolidation, which he said Monday was likely going to continue as soon as the economy picked up.

Pointing his rhetorical lance at media ownership, Copps said that there was less diversity, competition, and localism because the "tsunami of consolidation" had eroded the underpinnings of all three, thanks in part of sloppy FCC oversight.

Copps warned against putting too much stock in the doom and gloom scenarios about the health of TV and newspapers, suggesting that trying to "save" the media should not translate to a lighter re-regulatory hand. He said it was not the time to be relegating TV stations to the dustbin of history, and that local TV and newspapers would continue to be where most people get their news.

He also said that there were many broadcasters out there who continue to do an incredible job of serving the public interest, but that the aforementioned tsunami combined with government shortfalls had made them less captains of their own fate and more victims of Wall Street expectations.

Copps noted that the FCC should go ahead with decisions on existing proceedings on boosting minority and women ownership, localism, and tightening up the license renewal process rather than rolling them up into what would, of necessity, be a protracted rule review.

Furchtgott-Roth said those not convinced of the dire straits of those TV and newspapers should visit them, but quickly, before they went out of business. He said virtually all newspapers were either shuttered, in bankruptcy, or in trouble, and that the TV station business was not much better. He said they were the victims of competition, not the absence of it.

Economists and academics assembled for the panel talked about the need for more and better research, and at least one made a point about improvements the FCC needed to make to its databases so better information could be distracted.

There was no consensus, but none could have been expected from the variety of views assembled. Those favoring some regulatory governor on the market tended to argue that the Internet was not necessarily a substitutable competitor.

Among their arguments was that any one blogger wasn't reaching a much larger audience than a pamphleteer; that it was not a substitute for those who did not have broadband access--including almost half of African-American households and more than two-thirds of Spanish-speaking Hispanic households; and that ISPs were blocking traffic and applications.

Steve Wildman, from the Quello Center For Communications Management at Michigan State, came armed with data from a study he and colleagues are conducting in association with the National Science Foundation.

The bad news for broadcasters was that according to his analysis of 120 markets, in most of those, most stations weren't doing news period, and those that did weren't necessarily covering local issues. For example, he said, in Chicago only five of 15 stations were doing news.

The good news was that where they were doing news, local TV and newspapers dominated in terms of local news items, far outstripping the "citizen journalist" category, cable and others.

Furchtgott-Roth cautioned the FCC that in the congressionally-mandated rule review, it was bound by the statute to either eliminate or modify existing rules, not write new ones. The standard of review, he said, was competition, not diversity or localism.

He argued that special rules that regulate the media violate the First Amendment by putting the government in the "untenable position of trying to decide who may speak and who may not."

University of Pennsylvania law professor C. Edwin Baker said that it should be incumbent upon consolidators to show what benefits would accrue up against the sacrifice of the "maximum dispersal" of public discourse that would result. He argued for Democratic safeguards, saying no Democracy should accept the risk of the putting potentially demagogic power in the hands of an individual decisionmaker.

He also took issue with Furchtgott-roth's suggestion that media regs were a de facto speech threat. He said that while he had spoken out loudly against censorship of the media, he saw a difference between that and structural regulations, saying he could see a justification for regulating the media "at will" so long as the government could show they advanced the Democratic role of the media, which appeared to be another way of saying "necessary in the public interest."

That is where the discussion began, but its end will come months down the road, following more workshops and hearings and online in put. A decision from the FCC on what, if anything, to change is not expected until sometime next year.