The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is attempting to loosen media ownership rules by offering a proposal to weaken the FCC’s ban on cross-ownership. Under rule changes being proposed by the FCC, media companies in the nation’s top 20 markets would be allowed to own a newspaper and television or radio station, something that is currently not allowed. The proposal is opposed by two FCC commissioners but is favored by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and has been endorsed by billionaires with financial interests in the media industry including Rupert Murdoch and Samuel Zell.
Martin is attempting to alter a 1975 ruling by the FCC that prohibits a company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. In 2003 then chairman Michael Powell proposed a similar rule change, although they were defeated in Court and by Congress. The public watchdog Common Cause has said that Martin’s change are “eerily similar” to the proposed 2003 changes despite widespread public–and ultimately legal–opposition. Martin’s changes would allow a media company to own both a newspaper and either a radio or television station in the country’s twenty largest markets, which account for more than 43% of U.S. households.
Martin has rushed a vote on the issue–scheduling a vote on December 18–despite the fact that the FCC has not reviewed recommendations from 44 outside organizations. The FCC has also not finished a study on how the rule change would affect local media ownership. The December 18 hearing allowed only 19 days for public comment with a public comment period that ends on December 11. Free Press’s Stopbigmedia.com coalition is calling on people to write letters opposing the FCC’s proposed change and calling for greater Congressional oversight of the FCC.
According to the media activist group Free Press, Martin’s “relatively minor” rule changes are anything but minor. In a report titled “Devil in the Details: 10 Facts Kevin Martin Doesn’t Want You to Know About his New Media Ownership Rules” the organization outlines ten key areas left out of Martin’s push for the rule change. These include:
“FACT #1: Martin’s ‘modest’ proposal is corporate welfare for Big Media. Martin’s plan would unleash a buying spree in the top 20 markets, making it easier for companies like Belo, News Corp. and Tribune Co. to push out independent, local owners.
FACT #2: Loopholes open the door to cross-ownership in any market. Under Martin’s loose standards, cross-ownership waivers could be approved in hundreds of smaller cities and towns.
FACT #3: Loopholes allow newspapers to own TV stations of any size. The same technicalities could permit top-rated stations in any market to combine with major newspapers.
FACT #4: FCC history shows weak standards won’t protect the public. The current rules forbid cross-ownership, but the FCC hasn’t denied any temporary waiver request in years.
FACT #5: Cross-ownership doesn’t create more local news. The latest studies — using the FCC’s own data — show that markets with cross-ownership produce less total local news, as one dominant company crowds out the competition.
FACT #6: Cross-ownership won’t solve newspapers’ financial woes. Claims that the newspaper industry is about to “wither and die” are greatly exaggerated, and no evidence shows that cross-ownership would make things better.
FACT # 7: The Internet is an opportunity, not a death sentence. Mergers and consolidation are not the answer to the financial problems of the traditional media.
FACT #8: Martin’s plan would harm minority media owners. Nearly half of the nation’s minority-owned TV stations are lower-rated outlets in the top 20 markets, making them a target for Big Media takeovers.
FACT # 9: A broken and corrupt process creates bad policies. The FCC’s lack of transparency, flawed research and secret timetable have tossed aside basic fairness and accountability in the rush to change media ownership rules.
FACT # 10: The public doesn’t want more media consolidation. Martin’s actions ignore the millions of Americans — and 99 percent of the comments in the FCC docket — who oppose letting a few media giants swallow up more local media.”
Martin’s push for more consolidation comes despite the fact that there is a significant lack of diversity of media ownership in the United States. Women and people of color comprise two-thirds of the population but own only one-sixth of commercial radio and TV stations. Free Press further document this in a report titled “Out of the Picture 2007: Minority & Female TV Ownership in the United States.” The organization has also argued that cross-ownership would produce less local news leading “other stations in the market to collectively curtail their news output by about 25 percent.”
In West Michigan, the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID)–a part of Media Mouse–maintains an online resource called “Who Owns the Local Media in Grand Rapids.” GRIID has documented that media companies such as Clear Channel, Regent Broadcasting, Gannett, and LIN TV own much of the local media. Independent media sources are rare and the concerns raised above about diversity of media ownership by Free Press are very real in Grand Rapids.