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Proposed FCC Media Consolidation Rules

Rupert MurdockIn October 2007, then FCC chairman Kevin Martin proposed lifting the 1975 media cross-ownership rule. It forbid owning a newspaper and television or radio station in the same city even though conglomerates like Rupert Murdock's News Corp. and the (Chicago) Tribune Company already did.

On November 13, he expanded his earlier plan, claiming changes would only allow cross ownership "in the largest markets where there exists competition and numerous voices."

At the time, Free Press.net's policy director Ben Scott said:

"Chairman Martin's lofty rhetoric talks about saving American newspapers and ensuring a diversity of voices. But the devil is in the details. His new rules appear to be corporate welfare for the (media giants) in the biggest cities (and) most worrying....the proposed rules appear to contain a giant loophole that could open the back door to runaway media consolidation in nearly every market (in) another massive giveaway to Big Media."

After the 1996 Telecommunications Act passed, that's precisely what happened, despite supporters claiming competition would increase, lower prices and service would follow, and according to then vice-president Gore, consumers would get an "early Christmas present."

In fact, anti-consumer provisions cheated them by letting media and telecom giants consolidate through mergers and acquisitions. Doing so let them raise prices, control content, and compromise how consumers get information and communicate.

Martin wanted cross-ownership limits ended. Consumers, Free Press.net, the Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union documentation stopped him by showing ownership limits improve local news quantity and quality.

They refuted inconsistent, incompetent and incoherent FCC claims. They also exposed its duplicitous mid-November press release saying its proposal was just a "minor loosening of the (cross-ownership) ban....in (only) the very largest markets and subject to certain criteria and limitations."

Free Press accurately explained what Martin suppressed, saying:

(1) His "proposal (hides) corporate welfare for Big Media (that will) unleash a buying spree in the top 20 (media) markets."

(2) "Loopholes (through waivers) open the door to cross-ownership" anywhere.

(3) "Loopholes allow newspapers to own TV stations of any size (and) top-rated stations to (buy) major newspapers."

(4) "FCC history shows weak standards won't protect the public (and) the FCC hasn't denied any temporary waiver request in years."

(5) "Cross-ownership doesn't create more local news" as dominant companies crowd out competition.

(6) "Cross-ownership won't solve newspapers' financial woes" that are greatly exaggerated.

(7) "The Internet is an opportunity, not a death sentence," and media consolidation won't help traditional media's financial problems.

(8) "Martin's plan would harm minority media owners" by making them takeover targets.

(9) "A broken and corrupt process creates bad policies." FCC's secrecy and rush to change media ownership rules proved it.

(10) "The public doesn't want more media consolidation." Near unanimity opposed letting media giants "swallow up more local media."

The Prometheus Radio Project (advocacy for a "free, diverse, and democratic media") also expressed concern about Chairman Martin's plan to weaken rules, allow "unchecked corporate power in media," and permit too little time for public comments.

PRP, Free Press and other consumer advocates want more consolidation stopped, Net Neutrality preserved; expanded cable access; better use of unlicensed spectrum; more diversity, localism, and low power radio licenses; as well as other pro-consumer measures adopted.

Instead we're back to square one. On December 22, Free Press headlined, "FCC Ignores Public by Pushing Failed Ownership Policies," saying:

On December 22, the FCC "proposed rules that would further weaken media ownership limits for local newspapers and broadcast stations. The agency's proposal is strikingly similar to the one adopted in 2007 under former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin."

Public and congressional opposition stopped him. Then last summer, a federal appeals court blocked him.

Congress requires FCC review media ownership rules quadrennially. Today's proposal includes critical issues FCC will address next year, including covert broadcast television station consolidations through shared service arrangements.

According to Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron:

"The FCC must be having a Yogi Berra moment, because it's deja vu all over again on the failed policies of the previous administration. Those policies were resoundingly rejected by the public, Congress and courts. The FCC should focus on remedying the mistakes of past administrations - not repeating them."

"This action not only flies in the face of promises made by the president on the campaign trail but will also make it much harder for local and diverse owners to secure a piece of the public airwaves."

"Instead, the already dwindling number of smaller and independent media owners will be swallowed up by the same media giants that have crushed local journalism, killed local radio and left us with the same cookie-cutter content from coast to coast."

Aaron also addressed other FCC failures, including:

  • lack of ownership diversity, especially for minorities and women;
  • covert consolidation through secret deals, combining local newsroom operations in violation of agency rules; and
  • eroding competition overall.

Today's proposal isn't final. FCC can still "reverse course, reject the disastrous approach of its predecessors and refocus on policies that will benefit the public instead of just boosting the bottom line of a few giant media conglomerates."

Candidate Obama promised to "(s)upport the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet."

As president, his FCC and congressional extremists threaten it. Consumer and public advocacy pressure are crucial to stop them before it's too late.

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