June 28, 2005
Jonathan S. Adelstein, FCC Commissioner, Needs Your Help In the Fight Against Media Consolidation
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of two pro-consumer Federal Communications Commissioners (the other is Michael Copps), spoke with BuzzFlash on June 13th, the day the Supreme Court okayed Congress' override of the Michael Powell move to further deregulate big media [US high court declines media ownership challenges (Reuters)]. Adelstein and Copps are heroically trying to hold off the Karl Rove effort to more fully control the media in Stalinesque fashion, turning the entire media, including PBS and NPR, into FOX News clones. Nothing is more important to the GOP radical zealots than controlling the media message. They can only govern by suppressing the truth and replacing it with falsehoods. They rule by deception. If the media turned against them, they would be plea bargaining for shorter prison time.
So, Adelstein and Copps need your help. Contact information for the FCC is here: http://www.fcc.gov/contacts.html. You need to let them know how you feel about pending FCC regulations. Nothing is more important than who controls the messaging in America. The Republicans know this -- and they rule by smoke and mirrors as a result. Don't let them get away with further big corporate GOP media control. If it gets any worse, you might as well read issues of Pravda from the '50s.
Adelstein was born in South Dakota and was nominated to the FCC by former Senator Tom Daschle, for whom he was a senior legislative aide.
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BuzzFlash: The Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of media giants Sinclair, Tribune and others, which would have allowed more media deregulation and greater cross-ownership. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell supported this, and you obviously opposed it. What’s your response to the Supreme Court ruling that checks further media consolidation for the moment?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: We think it’s a great victory for the public over a handful of the biggest and most powerful media companies in this country. It is an opportunity for us to go back, start fresh, and get it right this time. The last time, the majority of FCC commissioners really made a disastrous decision, and Michael Copps and I vigorously dissented. It was the most destructive rollback of our media ownership rules in the history of American broadcasting. This time, I think the FCC could do a much better job by involving the public more, consulting with Congress more fully, and doing what’s in the best interest of the public and not a handful of media giants who seek to profit by using the public airwaves.
BuzzFlash: You weren’t on the FCC when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, but could you explain how the action taken under Michael Powell, which you opposed, expanded upon the Telecommunications Act of 1996?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: The Powell supporters went beyond where they needed to go to respond to the mandate of the ’96 Telecom Act. The ’96 Telecom Act, even according to the courts, only required that we review the rules, not that we necessarily gut them. The decision to severely roll them back was not mandated by the courts. In fact, we now know from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been today [June 13, 2005] upheld by the Supreme Court, that in fact the rules provided us much greater latitude. We would have been better served by working to promote the public interest more fully and being much more careful about our deregulating these media conglomerates.
BuzzFlash: Both you and Commissioner Copps participated in the National Conference for Media Reform presented by freepress.net in St. Louis in May. There was an outpouring of support for media reform as more than 2200 people gathered in the tradition of Tom Paine. What kind of role do people like those who attended the Conference for Media Reform have in ensuring that there’s not further media consolidation?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: I think activists play a really critical role in helping to mobilize communities that are concerned about this. It turns out that a vast public is worried about this, and it takes a handful of advocate leaders to make sure to channel that energy and let them know how to get involved, and how to impact the FCC and Congress. That’s a critical role for them to take.
After all, the law requires that we do what’s in the "public interest." That’s what Congress asked. If we don’t have input from the public, it’s kind of arrogant to say that we somehow know better than the public what’s good for them. We need to involve the public and involve Congress -- listen to what the public thinks is best for them. And it really takes the help from an organized and savvy group like those Americans who were represented out in St. Louis to make sure that all of the different viewpoints are well represented.
BuzzFlash: Were you surprised at the astonishing response to the media consolidation regulations passed by the GOP majority under Powell's leadership in 2003? An amazing groundswell of opposition, which seemed to come from right, left, and center, forced a Congress that almost always is in accord with the Administration to react very negatively to the action taken by the FCC. Were you a little surprised by that unexpected turn of events?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: It was even better than I had hoped, but I did anticipate a pretty strong negative reaction, having spent a lot of time with people outside of the Beltway. I went out of the confines of the FCC building here, and got out and talked to people in communities across the country. I found a unanimous chorus of concern and opposition to letting these media giants get even bigger. I came back to Washington a couple of weeks before the actual decision by the FCC in 2003, and I predicted that there would be a powder keg of public anger about to explode. I did see that there was trouble on the horizon.
I was really heartened by the degree to which Congress took up the call, because it’s not always the case that you get such a reaction. But the public was really organized. And the good news is that, this time around, I think people are more educated, more mobilized and more prepared. It’s going to be even more difficult to get away with a thoughtless action like the one that the FCC majority took last time.
BuzzFlash: I recall the story about a town where there was a train chemical spill. They had four or five radio stations, but they were all preprogrammed and owned by one of the big radio conglomerates. The local authorities couldn’t find anyone who was actually on the premises at any station to send out an evacuation notice to the people in the area because the conglomerate , to save money, had their programming taped all in advance, and there was not a live disc jockey on site.
Jonathan S. Adelstein: That’s right. That was in Minot, North Dakota.
BuzzFlash: Is this the kind of thing that unites the red states with the blue states in opposition to media consolidation?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: I think so. People from the right and left, and everyone in between, are concerned about this sort of thing. There was bipartisan outrage in Congress. The Senate voted on a bipartisan basis to veto everything that the FCC had done, which had never happened before in the history of the FCC. The outrage was loud and it was bipartisan, and understandably so. The conservatives in this country have traditionally been very concerned about concentrating power in any one place, be it in the government or in the media.
It's as American as apple pie that we have a diversity of viewpoints represented in the media, and I think media concentration really went against the grain of what this country is all about. That really helped us to put together an incredibly broad coalition in opposition to loosening the rules that ultimately, today, according to the Supreme Court, prevailed.
BuzzFlash: In some of the material handed out by "Free Press," the point was made that these are public airwaves that the FCC regulates. And yet if we take a station like ABC or CBS, the public is really not getting any significant money in return. Those stations are for-profit. This is a free enterprise society. In other words, they’re public airwaves, but they’re given to private parties. Is there any way for the public to get remuneration for the use of public airwaves?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: Well, the current law is that all broadcast frequencies are given out for free. It would take an act of Congress to require any return to the public in terms of revenues. But right now, the compact that’s always existed has been that in exchange for free use of the public airwaves, the broadcasters would serve the public interest, would provide things that were responsive to the concerns of the communities that they serve. As we’ve gotten away from those public interest requirements -- and the FCC has increasingly watered them down to the point where they’re almost nonexistent -- the public gets the worst of both worlds. They don’t get anything in return for the use of the airwaves in terms of being compensated or in terms of getting the kind of public interest programming that would justify such a giveaway.
BuzzFlash: Under the Reagan Administration, the requirements of the fairness doctrine were removed, so now we have right-wing media owners editorializing for the Republican Party and censoring programs that they think might be harmful to the current administration. There's no fairness there.
Jonathan S. Adelstein: That’s why it’s so important that we not loosen the media ownership rules. The last remaining bulwark against the domination of one viewpoint on the airwaves, be it from the left or the right, is that there be a diversity of viewpoints expressed, and that there are many different options for the public to draw from in terms of owners of the media outlets, then hopefully people can get the information they need to make up their own minds, rather than being disproportionately influenced by a handful of giants that might dominate the discourse in any given community.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you about the Internet. What is the issue facing the FCC relating to common carrier classification and the Internet? I guess there’s some confusion as to whether the Internet does indeed fall under the FCC’s jurisdiction.
Jonathan S. Adelstein: There’s currently a Supreme Court case, the so-called Brand X case, that is to decide whether cable modem service is considered an information service, which is very lightly regulated by the FCC, or whether it’s a telecommunications service, which is subject to far more regulation. And if the Supreme Court decides it’s an information service, it’ll be pretty much deregulated. If it’s a telecommunications service, then we’ll have more ability to ensure that the Internet remains open and free, as it always has been. [See BuzzFlash After Note.]
BuzzFlash: There is a movement afoot from broadband carriers to get legislation passed nationally, and also they’re trying to do it state by state, to prohibit cities from allowing free wireless access. Where does that fit in with FCC regulations?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: Well, that again is something for Congress. We don’t have any authority to restrict, nor do I think we should restrict, communities from trying to provide service for their own citizens. But Congress and state legislatures are being asked to do that. I think it’s a dangerous path to go down – to restrict people from serving their own needs, if they feel for some reason they’re not being served by providers in their community. That’s really a call for elected officials to make.
BuzzFlash: Is there nothing the FCC could do, for instance, about a law passed in Pennsylvania that, with the exception of Philadelphia, communities cannot provide free wireless or broadband access? The FCC can play no role in ensuring that local communities are free to offer wireless service at no charge?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: Right. They can currently restrict that option under state law, as far as I know.
BuzzFlash: Clearly, as you saw in St. Louis, a lot of people are very fired up about media consolidation. I was amazed to see more than twenty-two hundred people at a sold-out conference on an issue that to most Americans is pretty obscure. But you mentioned that, on many issues, even if Senators and Congressmen get a lot of letters, the FCC doesn’t. And, when the FCC does get a lot of letters, as in one instance when a right-wing group found something objectionable on television, 98% of the complaints came from one conservative group. Should the public contact you? Should they contact the FCC? Or should they go through Congress? What is your recommendation?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: Certainly, they should contact us. There are different pending issues that they they can comment on. They can also contact Congress if they feel strongly about something. I think the fact that so many people contacted the FCC was actually referred to in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which I think is very reflective of what an impact the people had on this discussion in an unprecedented way. It’s very rare for that kind of thing to get commented on by the federal appeals court.
BuzzFlash: They can send you a letter. They could go to your web site and e-mail from there [http://www.fcc.gov/contacts.html].
Jonathan S. Adelstein: I think it’s important that people do let us know if they have concerns about a particular issue before us.
BuzzFlash: Do you see, with the departure of Chairman Michael Powell, that there’s a chance for a new beginning here?
Jonathan S. Adelstein: The Court has provided us a golden opportunity to get it right this time, so we ought to start by really involving the public more than the FCC did under Powell. We can begin the process of getting expert opinion in here, getting studies done, and really being very cautious about allowing further media consolidation. Once we allow these companies to merge, there would be no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. I’m hopeful that we’re going to do a much better job this time. I think if we have continued input from the public, as we did last time, that will certainly lead to a better result.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much for your time and for the hard work that you do.
Jonathan S. Adelstein: You're welcome.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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BuzzFlash After Note: On Monday, June 27th, the Supreme Court ruled in the "Brand-X" case that large broadband Internet services have the right to function as monopolies and exclude carriers and content as they wish. It is a potentially enormous blow to the open democracy fertility of the Internet -- and may leave the Internet as lobotomized as the mainstream media.
Start making your calls to the FCC and Congress now.
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FCC Web Site (includes comments on the Brand X Ruling): http://www.fcc.gov/
Washington’s Hidden Persuaders (Variety)