Powell’s Legacy: He Riled the Masses

The Bush administration’s decision to let stand the U.S. Court of Appeals’ overturning of the FCC’s 2003 media-ownership decision as “arbitrary and capricious” is a welcome and well-deserved ending to a sorry chapter in not only media regulation but in American democratic government.

From the very start of the media-ownership proceeding, the FCC’s eventual decision to permit more newspaper/television crossownership, more network-owned local stations, more local duopolies and triopolies, more consolidation and more concentration had the smell of a done deal. Astonishingly, for such a far-reaching initiative that could have profound implications on our nation’s democracy and culture, the FCC scheduled not one public hearing.

When a delegation of labor representatives brought this oversight to the attention of FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree, he dismissed the idea of public hearings as unhelpful to the commission—“an exercise in foot-stomping.”

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell evinced a similar troubling lack of curiosity about the public’s views on his ambitious deregulatory agenda. Finally, bowing to widespread bipartisan criticism, Powell agreed to make time in his busy schedule of attending industry events—trips often paid for by the industry, a practice heavily criticized and now halted—to hear from the public at a single public hearing in Richmond, Va. There, 90 miles outside the Beltway, the FCC heard testimony mostly from the “usual suspects,” the inside-the-Beltway crowd. Few were persuaded that the real American public had been given a meaningful chance to participate.

Many Americans, including the creative artists who formed the Center for Creative Voices in Media, felt they had no choice but to organize. Indeed, Powell’s legacy as chairman of the FCC may be that, more than any other person, he is responsible for the emergence and success of the nation’s media-reform movement. His performance in the media-ownership proceeding was a galvanizing example of how not to regulate “in the public interest,” prompting over 3 million Americans to file protesting—and unheeded—comments with the commission.

Now it appears the FCC will have to take up yet again its media-ownership rules. This time, the media-reform movement that Powell aroused calls on the FCC to reconsider its fundamentally flawed 2003 order and establish new media policies that promote its oft-stated—and oft-ignored—core values of localism, competition and diversity of viewpoints and voices.

And this time, before the FCC adopts new rules, it must let the public meaningfully weigh in and help define exactly what constitutes the “public interest.” The full commission should, at a minimum, schedule hearings across the country to engage the American people on the future of their media and gain a better understanding of the impact of media consolidation on our nation’s communities, democracy and culture. If it does not, yet another flawed media-ownership deal will emerge from behind closed doors to serve only the interests of the media conglomerates.

In our democracy, that is something the public has no interest in.