"Today's Decision Would Make
George Orwell Proud"
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps
on the FCC's Vote to Rewrite the Nation's Media Ownership Rules
The Federal Communications Commission
voted three-to-two on party lines last week to approve a measure
that would increase media consolidation. The new rule pushed through
by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin lifts a thirty-year old ban on companies
seeking to own both a newspaper and television or radio station
in the same city. Michael Copps was one of two FCC Commissioners
to vote against the rule.
AMY GOODMAN: The Federal Communications
Commission last week voted three-to-two on party lines to approve
a measure that would increase media consolidation. The new rule
pushed through by FCC Chair Kevin Martin lifts a thirty-year-old
ban on companies seeking to own both a newspaper and television
or radio station in the same city.
But the reaction against the vote has
been swift. Close to 200,000 people have signed an open letter
urging Congress to overturn the December 18th vote. Less than
twenty-four hours after the vote, Democratic Congressmember Jay
Inslee and Republican Congressmember Dave Reichert introduced
the Media Ownership Act of 2007, that would overturn the new rules
by the FCC.
It was Bush-appointed FCC Chair Kevin
Martin, now just forty-one years old, who rammed through the rule
changes. He's served President Bush well. As deputy general counsel
for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000, he was active during the
Florida recount. Before that, he worked for Kenneth Starr at the
Office of Independent Counsel during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Rumor has it he may run for governor of his native North Carolina.
His wife, Cathie Martin, was a spokeswoman for Vice President
Dick Cheney in the midst of the scandal around the outing of CIA
operative Valerie Plame. She now works on Bush's communications
Today, we'll play the speech of one of
the two dissident FCC commissioners, Michael Copps. Copps has
been fighting media consolidation since he was appointed to the
FCC in 2001. He is a former history professor. He called the vote
a Christmas gift to corporations.
0. MICHAEL COPPS: I had an opportunity
to read a little bit of George Orwell the other day, and it was
good preparation for getting ready to deal with this particular
item. I think it would do him proud.
0. We claim to be giving the news industry a shot in the arm,
but the real effect is going to be to reduce total newsgathering.
We shed big crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers,
yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P
500 average. We pat ourselves on the back for holding six field
hearings across the United States, yet today's decision cites
not a single word from the thousands of Americans who waited in
long lines for an open mike to testify before us. We say we have
closed loopholes, yet we are introducing new ones. We say we're
guided by public comment, yet the majority's decision is overwhelmingly
opposed by the public, as demonstrated in our record and in public
opinion surveys. We claim the mantle of scientific research, even
as the experts say we've asked the wrong questions, used the wrong
data, and reached the wrong conclusions.
0. I am not the only one disturbed by this illogical scenario.
Congress and the American people have done everything but march
down here to storm to Southwest D.C. and physically shake some
sense into us. Everywhere we go, the questions are the same: Why
are we rushing to encourage more media merger frenzy, when we
haven't addressed the demonstrated harms caused by previous media
merger frenzy? Women and minorities own low single-digit percentages
of America's broadcast outlets, and big consolidated media continues
to slam the door in their faces. It's going to take some major
policy changes and a coordinated strategy to fix that. Don't look
for that from this Commission.
0. Instead, we are told to be content with baby steps to help
women and minorities, but the fine print shows that the real beneficiaries
will be small businesses owned by white men. So even as it becomes
abundantly clear that the real cause of the disenfranchisement
of women and minorities is media consolidation, we give the green
light to a new round of-yes, you guessed it-media consolidation.
0. Local news, local music and local groups so often get shunted
aside when big media comes to town. Commissioner Adelstein and
I have heard the plaintive voices of thousands of citizens all
across this land of ours in dozens of town meetings and public
forums, from newscasters fired by chain owners with corporate
headquarters thousands of miles away to local musicians and artists
denied airtime because of big media's homogenization of our music
and our culture, from minorities reeling from the way big media
ignores their issues and caricatures them as people to women saying
the only way to redress their grievances is to give them a shot
to compete for use of the people's airwaves, from public interest
advocates fighting valiantly for a return of localism and diversity
to small independent broadcasters who fight an uphill battle to
preserve their independence.
0. It will require tough rules of the road to redress our localism
and diversity gaps, too. Do you see any such rules like that being
passed today? To the idea that license holders should give the
American people high quality programming in return for free use
of the public airwaves, the majority answers that we need more
study of problems that have been documented and studied to death
for a decade and more. Today's outcome is the same old same old:
one more time, we're running the fast-break for our big media
friends and the four corner stall for the public interest.
0. It's time for the American people to understand the game that
is being played here. Big media doesn't want to tell the full
story, of course, but I have heard first-hand from editorial page
editors who have told me they can cover any story, save one-media
consolidation-and that they have been instructed to stay away
from that one. That's a story for another day, perhaps.
0. Today's story is a decision by the majority unconnected to
good policy and not even incidentally concerned with encouraging
media to make our democracy stronger. We're not concerned with
gathering valid data, conducting good research or following the
facts where they lead us.
0. Our motivations are less Olympian and our methodology far simpler:
We generously ask big media to sit on Santa's knee, tell us what
it wants for Christmas, and then push through whatever of those
wishes are politically and practically feasible. No test to see
if anyone's been naughty or nice. Just another big shiny present
for the favored few who already own an FCC license-and a lump
of coal for the rest of us. Happy holidays!
0. If you need convincing of just how non-expertly this expert
agency has been acting lately, you could not have a better example
than the formulation of the cross-ownership rule that the majority
will adopt today. I know it's a little detailed to see how the
sausage is made, but it's worth a look.
0. On November 2, 2007, with just a week's notice, the FCC announced
that it would hold its final media ownership hearing in Seattle.
Despite the minimal warning, 1,100 citizens turned out to give
intelligent and impassioned testimony on how they believed the
agency should write its media ownership rules. Little did they
know that the fix was already in, and that the now infamous New
York Times op-ed was in the works announcing a highly detailed
0. Put bluntly, those Commissioners and staff who flew out to
Seattle, sixteen witnesses, the Governor, the State Attorney General
and all the other public officials who came, plus the 1,100 Seattle
residents who had chosen to spend their Friday night waiting in
line to testify were, as Representative Jay Inslee put it, treated
like "chumps." Their comments were not going to be part
of the agency's formulation of a draft rule; it was just for show,
to claim that the public had been given a chance to participate.
The agency has treated the public like children allowed to visit
the cockpit in an airliner-you know, when you go up there with
your little kid, and you're not actually allowed to fly the plane,
but they're permitted for a brief, false moment to imagine that
0. The New York Times op-ed appeared on November 13, the
next business day after the Seattle meeting. That same day, a
unilateral public notice was issued, providing just twenty-eight
days for people to comment on the specific proposal, with no opportunity
for replies. The agency received over 300 comments from scholars,
concerned citizens, public interest advocates, and industry associations,
the overwhelming majority of which condemned the plan. But little
did these commenters know that on November 28, two weeks before
their comments were even due, the draft order on newspaper-broadcast
cross ownership had already been circulated. Once again, public
commenters were treated as unwitting and unwilling participants
in a Kabuki theater.
0. Then, last night at 9:44 p.m., just a little more than twelve
hours before the vote was scheduled to be held and long after
the sunshine period had begun, a significantly revised version
of the order was circulated. Among other changes, the item now
granted all sorts of permanent new waivers and provided a significantly
altered new justification for the twenty-market limit. But the
revised draft mysteriously deleted the existing discussion of
the "four factors" to be considered by the FCC this
morning in examining whether a proposed combination was in the
public interest. And in its place, the new draft simply contained
the cryptic words "[Revised discussion to come]." That's
what we got last night at 9:44. And although my colleagues and
I were not apprised of the revisions, USA Today fared better,
because it apparently got an interview that enabled it to present
the Chairman's latest thinking. Maybe we really are the Federal
0. Finally, at 1:57 this morning, we received a new version of
the proposed test for allowing more newspaper-broadcast combinations.
I cannot claim that I fully appreciate the test's finer points,
given the lateness of the hour and the fact that there was no
time afforded to parse the finer points of the new rule. But this
much is clear: the new version keeps the old loopholes and includes
two new ones. Finally, finally, as I walked out of the office
at 11:15 this morning, we received a revised paragraph on the
details of the "four factors." And forgive me if I am
unable to speak expertly about what they mean to the substance
of this decision.
0. This is not the way to do rational, fact-based, and public
interest-minded policymaking. It's actually a great illustration
of why administrative agencies are required to operate under the
constraints of administrative process, and the problems that occur
when they ignore that duty. At the end of the day, process matters.
Public comment matters. Taking the time to do things right matters.
A rule reached through a slipshod process and capped by a mad
rush to the finish line will, purely on the merits, simply not
pass the red face test. Not with Congress. Not with the courts.
Not with the American people.
0. It's worth stepping back for a moment from all the detail here
to look at the fundamental rationale behind today's terrible decision.
Newspapers need all the help they can get, we are told. A merger
with a broadcast station in the same city will give them access
to a revenue stream that will let them better fulfill their newsgathering
mission. At the same time, we're also assured, our rules will
require "independent news judgment" (at least among
consolidators outside the top twenty markets). In other words,
we can have our cake and eat it, too: the economic benefits of
consolidation without the reduction of voices that one would ordinarily
expect when two news entities combine.
0. But how on earth can this be? To begin with, to the extent
that the two merged entities are truly "independent,"
then there won't be the cost savings that were supposed to justify
the merger in the first place. On the other hand, if independence
merely means maintaining two organizational charts for the same
newsroom, then we won't have any more reporters on the ground
keeping an eye on government. Either way, we can't have our cake
and eat it, too.
0. MICHAEL COPPS: In the final analysis,
the real winners today are businesses that are in many cases quite
healthy, and the real losers are going to be all of us who depend
on the news media to learn what's happening in our communities
and keeping an eye on local government. Despite all the talk you
may hear today about the threat to newspapers from the internet
and new technologies, today's order actually deals with something
quite old-fashioned. Powerful companies are using political muscle
to sneak through rule changes that let them profit at the expense
of the public interest. They are seeking to improve their economic
prospects by capturing a larger percentage of the news business
in communities across the United States.
0. Let's get beyond the weeds of corporate jockeying and inking
up our rubber stamps for a new round of media consolidation to
look for a moment at what we're not doing today. That's the real
story, I think, that the important issues of minority and female
ownership and broadcast localism and how they are being short-changed
by today's rush to judgment.
0. First, on minority and female ownership, racial and ethnic
minorities make up 33% of America's population. They own a scant
3% of all full-power commercial television stations. And that
number is plummeting. Free Press recently released a study showing
that during just the past year the number of minority-owned full-power
commercial TV stations declined by eight-and-a-half percent, and
the number of African American-owned stations-get this-decreased
by nearly 60%. It's almost inconceivable that this shameful state
of affairs could be getting worse, yet here we are.
0. In most places there is something approaching unanimity that
this has to change. Broadcasters, citizens and members of Congress,
and every leading civil rights organization agree that the status
quo is not acceptable. Each of my colleagues has recognized,
I think, that paltry levels of minority and female ownership are
a reality, which makes today's decision all the more disappointing.
There was a real opportunity here to do something meaningful today
after years of neglect, and we blew it.
0. It didn't have to be this way. I proposed both a process and
a solution. We should have started by getting an accurate account
of minority and female ownership. That's the one that the Congressional
Research Service and the Government Accountability Office both
just found that we do not have at the FCC. The fact that we don't
even know how many minority and female owners there are is indicative
of how low this issue is on the FCC's list of priorities. We also
should have convened an independent panel, like proposed by Commissioner
Adelstein, and endorsed by many, that would have reviewed all
of the proposals before us, prioritized them and made recommendations
for implementation. We could have completed this process in ninety
days or less and then would have been ready to act.
0. Today's item ignores the pleas of the minority community to
adopt a definition of "Eligible Entity" that could actually
help their plight. Instead, the majority directs their policies
at general "small businesses," a decision that groups
like Rainbow/PUSH and the National Association of Black Owned
Broadcasters assert will do little or nothing for minority owners.
Similarly, MMTC and the Diversity and Competition Supporters conclude
that they would rather have no package at all than one that includes
this definition. Lack of a viable definition poisons the headwaters.
So should we wonder why the fish are dying downstream?
0. So while I can certainly support the few positive changes in
this item that do not depend on the definitional issue, such as
the adoption of a clear non-discrimination rule, these are overshadowed
by the truly wasted opportunity to give potential minority and
female owners a seat at the table they have been waiting for and
have deserved for so very long. My fear now is that with cross-ownership
done, the attentions of this Commission will turn elsewhere.
0. On localism, at the same time that we have shamefully ignored
the need to encourage media ownership by women and minorities,
we have witnessed a dramatic deterioration of the public interest
performance of many of our licensees. We have witnessed the number
of statehouse and city hall reporters declining decade after decade,
despite an explosion in state and local lobbying. The number of
channels have indeed multiplied, but there is far less local programming
and reporting being produced.
0. Are you interested in hearing about local politics from the
evening news? About 8% of such broadcasts contain any local political
coverage at all, including races for the House of Representatives,
and that was during the thirty days before the last presidential
election. Interested in how TV reinforces stereotypes? Consider
that the local news is four times more likely to show a mug shot
during a crime story if the suspect is black rather than white.
0. The loss of localism impacts our music and entertainment, too.
Just this morning, I had an email from a musician who took a trip
of several hundred miles and heard the same songs played on the
car radio everywhere he traveled. Local artists, independent creative
artists and small businesses are paying a frightful price in lost
opportunity. Big consolidated media dampens local and regional
creativity, and that begins, my friends, to mess around pretty
seriously with the genius that is America.
0. It's a travesty. We allow the nation's broadcasters to use
half a trillion dollars of the people's spectrum-for free. In
return, we require that they serve the public interest: devoting
at least some airtime for worthy programs that inform viewers,
support local arts and culture, and educate our children-in other
words, that aspire to something beyond just minimizing costs and
0. Once upon a time, the FCC actually enforced this bargain by
requiring a thorough review of a licensee's performance every
three years before renewing the license. But during decades of
market absolutism, we pared that down to "postcard renewal,"
a rubber stamp every eight years with no substantive review.
0. So, to begin with, the FCC needs to reinvigorate the license-renewal
process. We need to look at a station's record every three or
four years. I'm disappointed that the majority has so cavalierly
dismissed this idea. And we should be actually looking at the
record. Did the station show original programs on local civic
affairs? Did it broadcast political meetings? In an era where
too many owners live thousands of miles away from the communities
that they allegedly serve, do these owners meet regularly with
local leaders and the public to receive feedback? Why don't we
make sure that's done before we vote to allow more media consolidation?
0. In 2004, the Commission opened up a notice of inquiry to consider
ways to improve localism by better enforcing the quid pro quo
between the nation's broadcasters and the public. The notice addressed
many of the questions raised by earlier dormant proceedings dating
from years before. Today's localism notice asks more questions
and tees up some very meritorious ideas, but again my question:
why the rush to vote more consolidation now, consolidation that
has been the bane of localism, and why put off systematic actions
to redress the harms consolidation has inflicted?
0. Our FCC cart is ahead of our horse. Before allowing Big Media
to get even bigger-and to start the predictable cycle of layoffs
and downsizing that is the inevitable result of, indeed the economic
rationale for, many types of mergers-we should be enforcing clear
obligations for each and every FCC licensee.
0. Those who look for substantive action on these important issues
concerning localism and minorities will look in vain. Once the
majority works its way on cross-ownership, I'm not optimistic
about prospects for future action on these fronts. We're told
that we cannot deal with localism and minority ownership because
that would require delay. But these questions have been before
the Commission for a decade, and they have been ignored year after
year. These issues could have been-should have been-teed up ten
years ago. We begged for that in 2003, when we sailed off on the
calamitous rules proposed by Chairman Powell and pushed through
in another mad rush to judgment. Don't tell me it can't be done.
It should have been done years ago. And we had the chance again
this time around. Now, because of a situation not of Commissioner
Adelstein's or my making, we are accused of delaying just because
we want to make things better before the majority makes them worse.
0. When I think about where the FCC has been and where it is today,
two final conclusions:
0. First, the consolidation we have seen so far and the decision
to treat broadcasting as just another business has not produced
a media system that does a better job of serving most Americans.
Quite the opposite is true. Rather than reviving the news business,
it has led to less localism, less diversity of opinion, less serious
political coverage, fewer jobs for journalists, and the list goes
0. Second, I think we have learned that the purest form of commercialism
and high-quality news make very uneasy bedfellows. As my own hero,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, put it in a letter to Joseph Pulitzer,
"I have always been firmly persuaded that our newspapers
cannot be edited in the interests of the general public from the
counting room." And I think that applies to broadcast journalism,
too. This is not to say that good journalism is incompatible with
making a profit. I believe that both interests can be balanced.
I believe both interests must be balanced. But when TV and radio
stations are no longer required by law to serve their local communities
and are owned by huge national corporations dedicated to cutting
costs through economies of scale, it should come as no surprise
that, in essence, viewers and listeners have become the products
that broadcasters sell to advertisers. And that's you and me I'm
0. We could have been-should have been-here today lauding the
best efforts of government to reverse these trends and to promote
a media environment that actually strengthens American democracy
rather than weakens it. Instead, we are marking not just a lost
opportunity but the allowance of new rules that head media democracy
in exactly the wrong direction.
0. I take great comfort from the conclusion of another critic
of the current media system, Walter Cronkite, who said, "America
is a powerful and prosperous nation. We certainly should insist
upon, and can afford to sustain, a media system of which we can
0. So now it's up to the rest of us. The situation isn't going
to repair itself. Big media is not going to repair it. This Commission
is apparently not going to repair it. But the people and their
elected representatives and attentive courts can repair it. Last
time the Commission went down this road, the majority heard and
felt the outrage of millions of citizens and Congress and then
the court. Today's decision is just as dismissive of good process
as that earlier one, just as unconcerned with what people have
said, just as heedless of the advice of our oversight committees
and many other members of Congress, and just as stubborn-perhaps
more stubborn-because this time it knows, or should know, what's
coming. Last time a lot of insiders were surprised by the country's
reaction. This time they should be forewarned. I hope, I really
hope, that today's majority decision will be consigned to the
fate it deserves and that one day in the not-too-distant future
we can look back upon it as an aberration from which we eventually
recovered. We have had a dangerous, decades-long flirtation with
media consolidation. I would welcome a little romance with the
public interest for a change. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Copps, dissident
Federal Communications Commissioner, speaking just before the
vote to ax the ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership that
took place on December 18.
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