Seattle FCC Hearing: Democracy is in their hands: What are they thinking?

[Notes: We saw on Friday an extraordinary united front of citizens and of WA electeds from both parties opposing further media consolidation. 1st posted 11/9/07. Updates completed 11/10/07, 2:30 pm]

Above: Federal Communications Commission Commissioners listening to testimony at Friday evening's Seattle Town Hall Hearing.  L to R: Robert McDowell, a Bush appointee assumed to be supporting same-market cross-ownership between TV stations and newspapers; Michael J. Copps, opposing further consolidation; Chairman Kevin Martin, a Bush appointee proposing the new cross ownership rules; Jonathan Adlestein, opposing further consolidation.  Pro-consolidation Commissioner Deborah Tate was not present. Adelstein's statement, Copps' statement, Tate's statement. Martin responded to the passionate anti-consolidation arguments of Adelstein and Copps by dismissing them as "rhetoric".

The three Bush appointees to the 5-member Federal Communications Commission are expected to force approval of proposed new rules allowing cross-ownership of print and broadcast media in local markets despite overwhelming evidence and public testimony in opposition. Given the outpouring of compelling testimony expressed from every political point of view that further consolidation will decrease market competition and "weaken democracy"*, a question arises: what's going on with McDowell and Martin? Is it possible they don't understand how much depends on their actions? I had speculated that the demeanor of exhausted-looking pro-consolidation McDowell on the left (he appeared this way much of the time) expressed penitence and embarrassment -- and that of attentive-looking Chair Martin, third from the left, profound ease with the fact that he is about to sell out democracy. A friend I was with thought the opposite, that Martin seemed genuinely impacted by the testimony and McDowell exuded arrogance.

Tomorrow (11/10/07) I'll post a few more pictures and observations, below. Northwest Progressive Institute has live blogging of the event.

Friday night's FCC hearing was the last of several held nationally to gather public input on proposed new rules that would allow cross-ownership of TV and broadcast media in the same markets. Scant public notice was given -- the minimum allowable. But Town Hall Seattle was filled to capacity and people testified well past midnight. The two commissioners opposing the new rules were passionate and, I thought, even angry. There was a feeling in the room that the vote had already been decided. And an air of defiance.

Before I arrived a number of elected officials, starting with Governor Gregoire and including Representative Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Rob McKenna, had already testified against the new rules. Representative Reichert was speaking in support of localism and diversity -- in other words, against the new rules -- as I walked in. Reclaim the Media has posted Gregoire's and Reichert's testimony.

Commissioner Adelstein, that's him to the left, has provided a written copy of his prepared comments, including the following: "If the majority of the FCC opposes the majority of America in the name of the 'public interest,' you will see a willful act of arrogance. You will see a handful of unelected bureaucrats telling you 'we know what's in your interest better than you know for yourselves.' That will face a harsh judgment by your elected representatives on both sides of the aisle in Congress, with Washington State leading the way." What the commissioner said came out much stronger, I thought. My notes have this: "This goes against the grain of the American spirit.... If the majority of the FCC opposes the majority of Americans, this will be a willful act of arrogance that deserves to be struck down!'

Chairman Kevin Martin followed up with a statement that referred to the opposition to the new rules as "rhetoric". As he spoke, people shouted things like: "fascist!", "bullshit!", "be brief!", "resign!" and "corporate lackey!".

The testimony that I thought got the loudest and longest applause, including a standing ovation, was from a professor Emeritus from Cornell University. My notes are incomplete but it went something like this: 'I've studied American history and I know that investigative reporting is central to democracy. I feel a cynicism about this hearing tonight that I believe is justified by the recent actions taken by this FCC. I expect that by providing this testimony I may be merely colluding in a media exercise. The commissioners can say they complied with the law by holding this hearing and listening to all of us talk. But they know how they're going to vote; the votes are already bought and sold. Investigative journalism has failed America!'

At that moment, it seemed to me that everyone in that room was thinking about our entrance in Iraq under false pretenses while reporters acted as cheerleaders and entertainers instead of guardians of the truth. I would guess that I was not the only one who imagined blood on the hands of the commissioners who would allow the means of communication that belong to the American people and are essential for our safety, to be monopolized by the few for mere profit.

A number of panelists and commenters from media organizations that supported the new rules spoke. Their theme seemed to be that small and mid-sized stations are having real difficulty staying in business and also that they truly do care about the local communities. Several examples were given of large donations raised by these stations and donated to fight cancer or to local organizations -- or free air time given to promote events.

Above: panelists Erubiel Valladares-Carranzo II, Technical Engineer, and Oscar Morales, representing Low-power FM station KPCN-LP 96.3 FM, Radio Movimiento "La Voz del Pueblo". KPCN-LP, is a farmworker station in southern Oregon that helps community members organize for their rights. Morales testified in Spanish and Valladares-Carranzo II translated. Morales: 'I'm representing our people, young people that the government has put in the shadows. FCC, please don't shut us down.' Regular FM stations can expand their coverage and extinguish low-power FM stations. However, the low-power stations are not permitted to impinge on other stations.

John Carlson, shown on the left, above, is a commentator on KVI-AM and founder of the free market think tank, Washington Policy Center. He argued that consolidation has gone too far and has squelched competition. His testimony was very similar to what he presented last year, which is posted here on Reclaim the Media's site. Frank Blethen on the right, CEO of Seattle Times, also testified against the proposed new rules.

Jonathan Lawson, Executive Director of Reclaim the Media was second or third to testify. RTM's work deserves much of the credit for the big turnout to this last-minute hearing. RTM's site reports that some US Senators are giving notice to the FCC that they are watching closely and may not allow a decision in favor of cross-media ownership to stand.


*Sara van Gelder, Executive Editor of Yes! magazine, told the Commissioners that a relaxation of cross-ownership rules would "weaken democracy".
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One citizen after another, after another, after another, for hour after hour...
limited to two minutes, passionately, even eloquently, defending what's left of democracy and equality in mass communications.  

by dinazina on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 08:17:41 AM PST

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attended, and the hearing, which began at 4:00 pm, ended at 1:00 am. It was amazing!

by raincity calling on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 12:20:23 PM PST

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Their writeup is here: In Seattle, 1100 stand up for media diversity in marathon hearing.

An excerpt:

Advocates of diverse media, local media accountability, and quality journalism are seeing Friday's FCC media ownership hearing as a triumph. Over 1100 people attended the nine-hour marathon hearing, making it the largest of six such meetings designed to gather public opinion as the FCC considers proposals to let big media companies buy up even more local TV and radio stations.

The five Commissioners attending the hearing stayed onstage at Seattle's Town Hall until 1am receiving passionate pleas to reject more ownership consolidation. A diverse range of northwesterners from five states and many constituencies stepped forth to testify, despite the fact the hearing was announced just five business days in advance. Nearly all public speakers opposed deregulation in their comments, following a pattern established at earlier hearings in Los Angeles, Tampa, Nashville, Harrisburg, and Chicago.

(Hat tip to raincity calling.)

by zappini on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 02:02:14 PM PST

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Townhall was standing room only.

I tried to take notes, but it wasn't easy. Here's some random things I jotted down...

I heard the four FCC commissioners and then the panelists.

Chairman Kevin Martin is a tool. He reminded me a lot of former press secretary Ari Fleischer. His ability to stand in front of 800 outraged citizens and recite bald-faced lies is an amazing skill. Almost a pathos.

Martin tried to claim the FCC was merely following the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In other words, it's all Clinton's fault. Further, if Congress wants something different and passes new laws, the FCC will then follow those laws. Geov Parish, this morning on KEXP's Mind Over Matters, easily debunked that tripe, pointing out that 1996's poor law requires a review of ownership rules, not a consolidation.

Many demanded a roll back of the prior consolidation rules, not a further lessening.

A few people pointed out that the FCC buried their own reports which show that media consolidation has been bad for "localism", minority and female ownership, and local programming.

Timothy Karr, of media reform think thank Free Press, testified that media consolidation helped a few companies and hurt most every other company. I like those types of evidence-based economic arguments. Their review of the FCC's studies is here.

Karr also pointed out that if Chairman Martin pushed through these rules, he'd be doing so against the public's expressed interests, whereas the FCC charter is to serve the public's interest.

I spoke with Karr briefly downstairs. Apparently the National Assocation of Broadcasters actually bussed in 100s of people to Bogart the testifying during the other hearings. Reclaim The Media had people lining up in Seattle at 8:00am. Karr couldn't believe the NAB wasn't even trying in Seattle.

When asked what we can do, Karr encouraged us to contact our US Senators in support of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND)'s bill to stop the FCC.

One asshat, a tech from KTTH, testified that the "reality" of media consolidation has expanded opportunities for local voices to be heard. He claimed that callers with contrarian and opposing viewpoints were always bumped to the head of the queue. Presumably, their views are heard just before their mikes are cut.

A dude from KING/KONG, a supporter of consolidation, talked about the expanded local coverage their two station strategy permitted. Something about airing news at 10:00pm on KONG, which is not possible at KING, because the network's programming is still going.

Yea, whatever. Sounds like a problem with the network approach to broadcasting, not the local market ownership restrictions.

I think that if anything, KING/KONG is the exception that proves the rule. I like KONG. I like UpFront with Robert Mak. I think they do a fair job covering local stuff. I'd give them a 'C' grade for doing the bare minimum. We're grading on a curve, so everyone else gets a 'D' or 'F'.

by zappini on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 02:27:51 PM PST

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I thought I'd try an experiment and write the story in parts, updating as able.  Bad idea!  I just finished the updates now - and apologize to anyone who may have been confused!  

by noemie maxwell on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 02:33:28 PM PST

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There were so many hits, it's hard to pick a favorite.

Above, Noemie lists panelists Erubiel Valladares-Carranzo II, and Oscar Morales from KPCN-LP 96.3 FM. They're located in Woodburn, Oregon.

KPCN-LP is the only union owned radio station. They serve the immigrant farmworker and Spanish speaking communities. One half (50%) of the community is spanish speaking. They are the only non-corporate station. All of the other available frequencies have been gobbled up.

Erubiel started his 5 minute testimony with a clapping and then shout thing. I don't speak Spanish, so I don't know what he said. But it was way cool and got everyone revved up.

Oscar said (Erubiel translated) said that he was there to speak on behalf of his community and the kids that came to Seattle with them. He end with "Please commission, don't shut down our voices!"

Hearing these two guys was very moving.

(I may have gotten their names backwards.)

by zappini on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 02:43:35 PM PST

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John Carlson, talk show host on KVI, spoke against media consolidation.

In a rare moment of lucidity for a free market zealot, he pointed out that while good in principle, loosening the local ownership rules looks very different here on the ground. He suggested that we judge policies on their results, not their ideology.

Carlson then gave the analogy of a franchise chains. Even if your town is filled with national, large banks, a competitor can start up a new local bank to serve the local market. Not so with broadcasting, because the available frequencies are finite. Therefore, consolidation was anti-competitive, which is contrary to the free market.

[I know, it feels weird even attributing these words to Carlson.]

A couple of people commented on the interplay between consolidation, advertising, and the spread of big box retailers. King of like a self-reinforcing downward spiral, a negative feedback loop. I'd love to have this thesis fleshed out. It totally makes sense that big box retailers and media consolidation go hand in hand.

by zappini on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 02:51:44 PM PST

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I didn't actually testify. I didn't have my act together. But if I had, it would have been something like this:

The proponents of further media consolidation speak in terms of markets and consumers. I'm a citizen, not a mere consumer, and I'd like to be treated as such.

The central struggle in the American Experiment is the tension between Wealth and Democracy.

That the rich get richer is a mathematical certainty, the inevitable result of open markets and capitalism.

We also know that if wealth aggregates too strongly, democracy suffers. Innovation, the free exchange of ideas, the melting pot, job creation, opportunities, and respect for differing views all dry up.

So we Americans have repeatedly decided to actively redistribute wealth, to balance the meritocracy of capitalism with the democratic needs of a healthy society. We've decided to create and nurture a broad ecology of voices and ideas. We Americans purposefully choose to create a middle class in order to strengthen democracy. Most recently, this policy was called the New Deal and the Great Society.

And so here we are again debating consolidation. Simply, it is the choice between wealth and democracy. Like every prior round, we are choosing winners and losers.

As a citizen, I hope that we choose democracy, to make Americans the winners. Corporations won't completely lose; they'll still find a way to make a profit, it'll just be a bit more modest.

by zappini on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 03:14:11 PM PST

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Rob McKenna, Reagan Dunn, Frank Blethen and John Carlson being cheered wildly by our side.  (In fact, I've never seen Rob so nervous as when he would look into the crowd with a slightly jittery smile when we started cheering his points made.)

Stunned faces at Reichert actually standing for something, too.  ;-)

McDowell definitely didn't care too much, or at least came across as such.  Martin seemed increasingly somewhere between surprised and exhausted at the testimony, especially since he took more than a little heat in his opening remarks, and was expecting, I think, nothing but a lot of overheated rhetoric.  Instead, most of it was thoughtful and straightforward, and more than a little of it was quite good at explaining the points to be made in the limited time available per person.

I think if we could get a fraction of the crowd that was there to send in faxes and phone calls to the FCC stating their opinion against further loosening of media ownership rules, and multiply that to a nationwide response, I have a feeling the situation would not be so "bought and sold" anymore.

My two bits...

by palamedes on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 04:48:57 PM PST

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worthless paid 'leaders' in our decrepit, spineless

ha ha ha ha

'opposition party'

(see the latest attorney general vote - note how we need 60 votes for anything to happen, and the fascists can get anything done with nary a whimper !)

people aren't quitting and rolling over.

when I see that many of us peee-ons aren't willing to sit down and STFU,

my contempt for those who are paid to lead us deepens.

hats off to the governor.



by rmdSeaBos on Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 06:20:58 PM PST

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There's something that's been bugging me.

Mike McCormack on yesterday's Mind Over Matters (on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle) had an interview with Naomi Klein. She's promoting her latest book The Shock Doctrine. Fantastic interview. Klein's intellect and ability to tie together a narrative is a laser beam of rationality. I haven't heard such a succinct description of our current challenges any where else.

Any way...

The solution the crony capitalists have for every problem is always the same: cut taxes, more privatization.

Hearing the testimony of both the panelists and (we the) public, something weird struck me: Every station, every local environment, ever community has its own unique challenges.

We can argue about causes, viability, how we got to this point, whatever.

But the proposed solution is always the same: further media consolidation.

It reminds me a lot of the election issues I work on. Initially, when I was just starting out, I wanted a federal solution, to compel all these county and state election authorities to clean up their nests. My initial impulse was ignorant and misguided. So it is with federal efforts to consolidate the media.

What we need, an it's supposedly a very conservative position, is more local control, more autonomy, and more stakeholders at the table. Because there is no set of rules, algorithm, guidelines, regulations, or whatever which can take into account the diversity of contexts and needs, that can completely remove the need for human judgment in the decision making process.

To perserve and enhance "localism", we need rules to decide HOW to make our local choices, not rules to decide WHAT are choices may be. We need to focus on structures and processes (aka "democracy"), not on outcomes. If the infrastructure for governance is in place and enforced, I believe the best outcomes will result.

(That's my experience, at least.)

by zappini on Sun Nov 11, 2007 at 01:17:41 PM PST

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