Court overturns FCC plan to deregulate mass media

Calling it “a historic victory toward protecting diverse, independent and local media,” two Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioners, appearing at a town hall meeting in Portland June 24, applauded a decision by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the FCC’s dramatic loosening of media ownership in the United States.

The court’s 2-1 ruling in the case, Prometheus Radio Project vs. FCC, requires the agency to rewrite its controversial June 2003 decision relaxing the regulation of ownership of the television, radio and newspaper industries.

The two commissioners appearing in Portland — Democratic appointees Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein — were the two dissenting voices when the FCC passed the rules on a partisan 3-2 vote following intense lobbying by the Bush Administration and big broadcasting and publishing companies.

FCC Chair Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, was the architect of the new rules, which he rammed through the commission last year with only a single public hearing. The other commissioners are Republican appointees Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy. All five commissioners were invited to Portland but the majority did not respond.

In issuing its ruling, the appellate court specifically rejected the major rule changes concerning the cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations and the concentration of broadcast ownership in local markets. Together, those rules would have allowed one company to own three TV stations, eight radio stations and the monopoly newspaper in a single market.

The court also rejected the FCC’s primary defense that Congress had ordered a gradual loosening of ownership rules in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In the year since the original decision, the FCC argued that ownership limits should be removed unless evidence could be shown to warrant their retention. The court reversed that burden of proof, ruling that public interest ownership limits should be kept in place unless sufficient evidence can be shown to warrant their removal.

The court, however, did not dispute that the commission has the right to ease ownership limitations, but it said regulators have to do so in a way that is not “arbitrary and capricious,” as the court determined in this case.

These are contentions Copps and Adelstein had made when Powell initiated the deregulation rules early last year. Copps said the majority FCC commissioners used some initial studies “as an ending point” to deregulation rather than a starting point.”

Several labor groups also disagreed with the studies and the ensuing ruling. They conducted their own analysis that resulted in a far different conclusion. The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Musicians Union called on the FCC to re-examine its factual basis and to conduct public hearings on the issue.

At a press conference prior to the Portland town hall on “The Future of Media” at the Oregon Convention Center, the commissioners said, “People aren’t taken in by shoddy analysis and a preordained determination to deregulate the media.”

Adelstein said the FCC is charged to operate in the best interest of the public. “The FCC shouldn’t say what’s right for the public, let the public say what’s right for themselves,” he said.

Copps said that “corporations are given the privilege of using this public asset and to profit from that use in exchange for their commitment to serve the public interest. Broadcasters have been given very special privileges, and they have very special responsibilities to serve their local communities.”

The commissioners said the FCC and Bush Administration received more than 3 million letters or e-mails from across the political spectrum following the media deregulation announcement last year. The ruling also drew several congressional rebukes, including a 99-1 Senate vote last week to overturn the new rules.

The Portland town hall attracted 250 people who came to voice their concerns about the state of the media. Among them were Madelyn Elder, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7901, L.C. Hansen, president of Letter Carriers Branch 82; Bruce Fife, president of Musicians Local 99; Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, and Margaret Butler of Jobs With Justice.

Butler presented the commissioners with findings from a Jobs With Justice national Workers’ Rights Board hearing regarding Comcast Cable. Curt Henninger of Comcast was a panelist at the event.

The report, Butler explained, “documents the systematic abuse of workers and communities engaged in by Comcast. For me as a fifth-generation Oregonian, it is outrageous that our community provides a monopoly franchise to a company that systematically destroys workplace freedoms, violating internationally agreed upon human rights criteria. The FCC cant’ do anything about that, but letting the media get bigger adds to these problems.”

The Workers’ Rights Board called on the FCC and the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives to investigate ways to strengthen communities’ abilities to regulate monopolies such as Comcast and to provide oversight, particularly of prices charged and quality of service.

The two commissioners called on Chair Powell to hold town hall meetings across the country with all five commissioners. “Which should have been done in the first place,” Copps said. “People feel a vested interest — not as consumers — but as citizens.” He also said “there’s no guarantee we’ll do it right next time.”

The court decision does not affect a White House-negotiated deal to lift the national broadcast audience cap — the maximum percent of national television households that a single company can reach with its stations — from 35 to 39 percent. That deal, attached to a 2004 spending bill, was signed into law by President Bush in January.

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