“Look, We Own The Airwaves!”

An Interview With Fcc Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein

Tim McGivern
16 min read
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There are certain beliefs in America that we the people hold to be self-evident. We think of ourselves as a capitalistic society, for example, where everyone has an opportunity to buy and sell goods and services in an openly competitive, free market. After all, if you pay attention to the rhetoric coming out of Washington, you know free enterprise is a vital component to keeping our democracy strong and our economy sound. (Of course, these same politicians fail to see that giving billions of dollars in tax subsidies to massive, highly profitable oil, gas, coal, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries does not exactly foster a free, competitive market—but that's a whole other matter.)

Then there is the American media industry and the public airwaves on which they sell their wares. In June 2003, in the name of promoting free market competition, Michael Powell, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and two other commissioners, Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy, voted to remove restrictions on media ownership in America, which is primarily controlled by only a handful of corporations. These three commissioners were opposed by the two remaining commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who strongly objected to the FCC allowing more mass media consolidation. The debate came down to this basic argument: Powell and company said removing the TV, radio and newspaper ownership rules would foster free market competition. On the other hand, Copps and Adelstein argued that removing restrictions on media ownership would result in a less competitive marketplace and hand over greater control of the American media to even fewer giant corporate conglomerates.

So, by a 3-2 vote, Powell and company prevailed, making it possible for a single corporation to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the major daily newspaper (already a monopoly in most places), the local cable provider (already a monopoly in most places), an unlimited number of cable channels and even the dominant Internet provider. Imagine that. One corporation controlling all of these sources of news and information in a single city, or even in many cities across the nation.

“At issue in that vote was how America’s TV, radio, newspapers and even the Internet are going to look for many years to come,” wrote Commissioner Copps in a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, explaining his dissenting vote. “How many—or, rather, how few—companies are going to control the media—and for what purposes? Will we still be able to get real local news and clashing points of view so we can make up our own minds on the issues of the day? How do we assure quality TV and music instead of being fed a diet of precanned and nationalized fare aimed primarily at selling products?”

At issue, then, is the question of whether or not the airwaves are serving as the uninhibited marketplace of ideas as mandated by federal law. That is, the public airwaves are supposed to foster diversity of opinion, programming of local interest and fair competition among those folks licensed to broadcast.

But are these mandates being upheld in today's marketplace?

This question, among others, has galvanized a public and political debate that might actually wrestle corporate control away from the FCC's three-member majority, and might possibly weaken the support this politically appointed majority enjoys from the Bush administration and the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives that have continued to support their decision.

As for the public, more than 2 million people protested the FCC's controversial ruling leading up to last year's vote and the protesting has continued ever since. The public outrage is unified in ways that almost seemed impossible in today's polarized America. Where else will you find the NRA and conservative Christian groups joined with liberal advocacy organizations like MoveOn.org, labor unions and parent-teacher organizations all unified in their opposition to a single issue? Perhaps what is more remarkable is that the decision makers in Washington ignored this public uproar leading up to last June's FCC decision and chose instead to bend toward the interests of corporate media giants such as AOL TimeWarner, Disney, Viacom, General Electric and News Corporation, who lobbied for more consolidation.

But as public opinion became more steadfast and rancorous, the Republican-controlled Senate took up the charge, attaching an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill recently that would effectively overturn the FCC ruling. The bill is presently tied up in conference committee with the House Republican leadership, which will push to have the amendment removed from the final defense spending bill, according to a spokesman from New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall's office. Even if Congress did vote to overturn the FCC's ruling, President Bush has suggested he might veto the bill. So the fight in Congress is far from resolved.

Meanwhile, last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the FCC’s “media concentration plan was legally and procedurally flawed,” wrote Copps. As a result, the court stayed implementation of the new rules and sent them back to the commission to be reworked.

Adding to this opposing momentum, Copps concluded: “It is clear that we need to reassess our approach and start protecting the people’s interest in the people’s airwaves. It is time for the FCC to start over and come up with a set of rules to encourage localism, diversity and competition in the broadcast media instead of always waving the green flag for more big-media consolidation.”

As part of their effort to bring the people's fight to Washington, Commissioners Copps and Adelstein have toured the country seeking more public input. On June 23, Adelstein visited Albuquerque to listen to public comment in what was billed as “A Public Town Hall on the Future of the Media in America.” The event also featured panels consisting of local editors and broadcasters, discussing the quality of media content in our community. The Alibi sat down with Adelstein for a one-on-one in the minutes before the forum took place at TVI's Smith Brasher Hall.

Explain exactly what has happened since the FCC voted to further deregulate the media industry and allow for greater consolidation of media ownership?

In June 2003, the FCC basically allowed the big media companies to get even bigger. They allowed large media giants to swallow up even more local outlets. For example, now a newspaper can buy up television and radio stations in most cities in the country. Whereas before we had a prohibition of buying other broadcast outlets. See, the problem is a single owner can dominate the media scene more thoroughly in various local communities than they otherwise could. All those rules are on hold now because of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Since the FCC has made the decision to let these large media companies get bigger, we’ve had an unprecedented outpouring of public outrage about the decision; over 2.3 million people have contacted the FCC, virtually every one in opposition to this. The dissent came before, during and after the decision. But the total was more than two million people—an unprecedented outpouring in the history of the FCC.

People are clearly very concerned about this issue. They are concerned about what issues get covered in their local media; they are concerned about consolidation’s effect on whether or not issues concerning them are covered. We hear this from people across the country; they see homogenization, crassness and commercialization of the media.

So why is that a concern? Do you think the public is dialed-in to how the airwaves are public domain and how the regulatory process is supposed to work?

Well, when I hear people, they say ’look we own the airwaves.' We the people own the airwaves and we’re not getting back anything in exchange for what we give to broadcasters, which is free use of the airwaves. People think they are getting shortchanged when I talk to them around the country. They feel like they are not getting enough public affairs; they don’t get an accurate reflection of what is happening in their communities. Minority views get discounted or distorted, they think. Everything gets homogenized, is what we hear. They don’t see the media uplifting us, but they see the media playing on violence and crime, feeding into the problems that already exist, instead of being part of the solution by giving us the information we need to make decisions like for the upcoming elections.

OK, so if these citizens are being ignored, whose wishes were granted? Who wanted more media deregulation?

The big media companies are the ones that came out the big winners here. The big five companies (Disney, AOL Time-Warner, Viacom, General Electric and News Corporation) were on record for supporting more deregulation. Disney was supportive of more deregulation, but the least vocal of the other four. But all of them were on record for more deregulation.

Talk about the reaction in Congress and the Courts since the FCC's 3-2 vote.

The Senate actually voted, shortly after the FCC decision, to veto and basically block the whole thing. It was actually a bipartisan vote of 55-40. Everybody from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) agreed that it was a bad idea for the FCC rules to go forward. The groups that were mad about this ranged from the NRA to MoveOn.Org and The Parents Television Council. But the House leadership wouldn’t even take it up, even though 200 members were on record supporting it. It’s still pending over there, but there probably is a majority to support (the Senate bill) if it were to come to a vote.

If Congress did pass such a veto and the president signed it, would that law effectively overrule the FCC?

Yes. The president has expressed his opposition to this so I'm not sure it has a good chance of passing this year. Just a few weeks ago the Senate voted again 99-1 to put these rules on hold for a year to study the impact of media consolidation on indecency.

In your opinion, are lawmakers, as well as the public, suggesting that crassness on TV and radio is connected to mass media consolidation and a less competitive marketplace?

Well, it’s not even a matter of decreased competition. It’s almost increased competition, because there are so many outlets chasing the same amount of revenue that they need to really do what's shocking … in order to get the attention of people. They have to do things that are sensationalistic and these things don’t necessarily involve in-depth analysis that concerns the electorate. They involve pandering to people’s most base kind of interests.

Even if whatever might be broadcast would fall under the umbrella of their First Amendment rights to free speech?

Well, (Commissioner Michael Copps and myself) just want to make sure there are a lot of different owners so people can have the opportunity to express differences—so that just a handful of companies don’t dominate the scene and drive it in the direction that apparently people aren’t finding completely satisfactory. That's what we hear when we go around the country.

All right, if you have Trent Lott and Ted Kennedy on the same side of the issue, symbolizing the unified opposition from the left and right, what then is the explanation for both sides being ignored by the three majority members of the FCC?

Well, you know, one of my (opposing FCC) colleagues said that we’re not doing this by ballot. We’re not voting on this for some popularity contest. We’re not weighing the number of postcards on one side versus the other. They said we have to decide what the rules required. And they claimed that the courts made them do it, and the Congress made them do it. Ironically, the Senate has now reversed the decision and the Courts have signaled huge concerns about this. One court put the entire rules on ice while they interpret whether or not they violate the public interest. So, the original reasons that were given—that the courts made us do it and the Congress made us do it—certainly aren't borne out by the fact that we’ve had nothing but concern expressed by the Congress and the Courts about the decision that was made.

What role did the National Broadcasters Association play in all this?

Well, you know, I can’t really speak to what people’s motives are. I mean, they did feel and they expressed that it was Congress and the Courts that should have required this outcome. I think that those who made this decision over-interpreted or exaggerated what Congress and the Courts were requiring. They didn’t need to go nearly as far in allowing more media consolidation, and they could have still satisfied the congressional requirements. They overreached.

So, what brings you to Albuquerque?

My staff and I really wanted to hear from people in Albuquerque about what’s happening in the local community here—how well the broadcasters are covering issues of concern to the local community, the issues of concern to the Hispanic community or the Native Americans who live here. Just in general, for example, I wanted to hear whether or not they’re covering the election issues that are of concern to people in this community. I just met with a group of local officials that expressed a lot of concern about the fact that they’re not really covering what’s happening during the elections for city and state legislative seats. They’re not doing a very good job of covering what’s going on in the small rural towns that are outlying Albuquerque.

Well, what if the TV stations follow viewer surveys telling them that if you mention the word Legislature on the news it’s a click-through, meaning people go to the next station. You know, in other words, they’re watching their ratings and how to sustain viewers and these issues lower their ratings. How’s that ever going to change?

Well, I’ve heard news directors say that politics is ratings poison. They don’t think it sells well, and they prefer to put whatever car crashes or rapes or whatever might be more titillating on the news.

We seem to have a high volume of dog attacks here in Albuquerque.

You probably have a lot more dog attacks than you have local election coverage. If you watch TV, you think that’s what’s going on.

Yeah, then the only legislation that gets covered on the news is the bill to ban pit bulls.

Well, that’s right. The key is if local election coverage can be a requirement. Basically, that all these broadcast outlets have to do a certain amount of coverage focused on what’s happening in the local communities and what’s happening in the civic or electoral life of the city. Then, everybody’s got to do it, and there’s not a competitive advantage to, say, putting on a worm-eating contest rather than a debate among people that are fighting for a state Senate seat. What’s more important to people? Obviously, the state Senate is probably more of a public interest item, but maybe more people would rather watch the worm-eating contest. But if everybody’ has to put on something about the elections, because Congress requires them to it or the FCC requires it, then there’s not going to be a competitive disadvantage for those who do the right thing.

We have what we call an economics market failure here where the broader interests of the public are being neglected, because the short-term economic interests of the broadcasters are basically trumping the long-term interests of the population. The whole idea of giving them a license to serve the public interest is that they’re supposed to put the public interest first. They’ve got to give something back to the public in exchange for the free use of public airwaves and to some extent they do that, and many broadcasters do a good job, but others have a long way to go.

We came to talk to people in Albuquerque about what they think, if they think they’re getting their money’s worth in terms of the programming offered on the public airwaves.

Overall, is there still a lot of public apathy and that’s also part of the equation?

Media is not something that there’s a lot of apathy about. I mean, we get a lot of outpouring of public concern. We went to Rochester, N.Y., several months ago, on a snowy night, with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, and she said she’d never seen that many people at a public forum. Five-hundred people trudged through the snow to talk about this issue.

Media is a very close, personal concern to people. I mean, they watch and listen to a lot of it, and they’re concerned about it and they don’t always like what they see. So, here’s a chance to come and complain right to the FCC about it and I’m happy to hear what they have to say. We want to try to make the media more responsive.

FCC Chairman Powell frequently mentions that regulations and restrictions on mass media consolidation are jeopardizing free market ideals. Comment on that.

It’s all well and good to say we should deregulate the media ownership rules, because it's a free market, but it’s not a free market. There are only a limited number of licenses that go to broadcasters for the public airwaves, and whoever gets one of those exclusive licenses has an obligation to give something back to the public in return. Not everyone who wants to broadcast over the airwaves has the opportunity, because they don't have a license. Far from it. There’s huge demand for these licenses and the value of them is going up. So, it’s far from a free market and we have to make sure it’s regulated in the public interest.

When might the FCC have another vote to overturn the decision?

The courts have forced the FCC to revisit the issue. The current three-member majority in this current membership is not interested in revisiting what they did. It’s really up to the courts or Congress to force us to reconsider.

And the public?


For information on the current status of FCC legislation in Congress contact Albuquerque's congressional delegation:

Rep. Heather Wilson's office: 346-6781

Sen. Jeff Bingaman's office: 346-6601

Sen. Pete Domenici's office: 346-6791

For more information on the Federal Communications Commission, visit www.fcc.gov

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