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Diverse critics fight FCC on media ownership rules

By null, Times TV Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003

When comedian Ellen DeGeneres decided in 1997 to craft an episode of her ABC series in which her character would mirror her "coming out" as a lesbian, the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety declaring "America's Families Deserve Better."

And when MSNBC decided this year to hand talk-radio firebrand Michael Savage a TV show, liberal advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting criticized the move, saying "misogyny and homophobia are staples of Savage's show," noting his disparaging comments on a "homosexualized America."

But even though FAIR and the Media Research Center rarely agree on anything, elements of their organizations have come together on one issue: the need to slow the Federal Communication Commission's drive to revamp rules on media ownership.

FCC chairman Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) plans to complete the agency's review of ownership guidelines June 2 (a plan encouraged by President Bush through a letter sent to Powell last week by Commerce Secretary Donald Evans).

This year, the agency has offered only one official hearing for public comment, and awareness of the issue seems awfully low (no surprise, given that big TV news outlets, whose owners would likely gain by looser ownership rules, haven't shown much interest in the story).

Activists fear that Powell is planning to loosen restrictions. Currently, no owner may hold outlets that reach more than 35 percent of the country's TV viewers. Another regulation prevents newspapers from purchasing TV stations in the same market.

So why would a group focused on making the case for mainstream liberal media bias care about this issue?

Turns out, Media Research Center chairman L. Brent Bozell also leads an offshoot of the group called the Parents Television Council, an advocacy organization focused mostly on eliminating overt sexuality, violence and obscenities from prime-time TV.

(The council, for example, delivered more than 17,000 complaints to the FCC in January about U2 front man Bono's dropping the phrase "f--- brilliant" while accepting a Golden Globe award on NBC.)

For it, the problem with media consolidation comes down to an overriding issue: indecency.

"The first thing to do is not to have their vote on June 2, without having a serious study on indecency issues in media consolidation," said Lara Mahaney, the council's director of corporate entertainment affairs. "We feel, with further media consolidation, you're going to see a proliferation of indecent material."

For proof, Mahaney said, look at the radio industry, where the Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed many hurdles to consolidation and allowed industry giants such as Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel Communications to dominate (in the Tampa Bay area, Clear Channel owns eight stations, Infinity six).

According to the Washington Post, there are at least 1,100 fewer radio station owners now, a decline of 30 percent. In almost half the nation's radio markets, 80 percent of the audience listens to outlets controlled by three companies, the newspaper said.

Mahaney cited the way Infinity has aggressively promoted shock jock Howard Stern as a example of how ever-powerful radio conglomerates often expand controversial content across their outlets to snag young consumers (Clear Channel jock Bubba the Love Sponge made national headlines by killing a boar on air during his Tampa Bay area-based show). Because of their size, rivals have a tough time competing, Mahaney said.

"These media companies are looking for targeted markets . . . mostly the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic," Mahaney said. "The majority of programming is not geared toward viewers of Touched By an Angel."

And though the council has complained about lax FCC enforcement of decency issues, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has maintained that shrinking numbers of media owners will limit public debate, regardless of how many media outlets they control.

"You wind up with this illusion of more choice, but you're seeing the same content repeated over and over," FAIR spokeswoman Rachel Coen told me last year. "In a country this size, you can't carry on a political debate without the media to help you. When ownership of that media system is concentrated in a very few corporate hands, it decreases the amount of news and information people have access to, and it narrows the range of debate. Both of those things are inimical to democracy."

These groups are not alone. On April 9, 15 senators, many of them on the Commerce Committee, sent a letter to the FCC urging it to reveal planned changes to the public before June 2, so people could discuss the proposals knowledgeably.

Even former media mogul Barry Diller, an architect of the Fox network who resigned in March as co-chief executive of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, has argued that further TV deregulation would stifle the voice of independent producers, who must deal with the same few media companies every time they sell a TV series.

"The barrier to entry now is so incredibly high that the ability of a new entrant to actually go out and get a voice is practically nil," Diller said this month in a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention quoted by the Hollywood Reporter. "The conglomerates are like the Rothchilds funding both sides in the Napoleonic wars. They are on both sides of virtually every transaction."

And a coalition of minority journalists advocacy groups - including the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists - has issued statements calling for the FCC to delay its vote and seek more public comment.

"We think the media has a responsibility to cover this and the FCC has a responsibility to seek more public comment," said National Association of Hispanic Journalists president Juan Gonzales, noting a February study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicating that 72 percent of Americans have heard "nothing at all" about the issue.

"We're concerned there hasn't been enough study done on the impact of further deregulation on the news and information needs of the Latino community," said Gonzales, adding that other journalism groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio-Television News Directors Association have not taken positions on the proposed changes. "What's been the impact of radio consolidation on programming geared to the Latino community? We don't know of any real studies that would document results one way or the other."

In a column for USA Today in January, the FCC's Powell touted the increased media diversity offered by the exploding number of cable networks and the Internet. He also noted that courts have faulted the FCC for not empirically justifying its ownership rules through analyses or studies.

"Even in small towns, the number of media outlets - including cable, satellite, radio, TV stations and newspapers - has increased more than 250 percent during the past 40 years," he wrote. "Independent ownership of those outlets is far more diverse, with approximately 139 percent more independent owners than there were 40 years ago. This abundance means more programming, more choice and more control in the hands of citizens."

But activists again point to radio, where an increasing number of voices are being controlled by a smaller number of owners.

When radio host Glenn Beck (syndicated by a Clear Channel-owned company) decided to present a series of "support the troops" rallies across the country, including one this month in Clearwater that drew as many as 20,000 people, observers questioned whether the media company was throwing its massive influence behind an event that ultimately served to endorse the war in Iraq (the company has said that station managers decided individually to participate in the rallies).

Comments made by Powell and other commissioners in recent months have led observers to conclude that the agency will likely end the prohibition against newspaper companies owning broadcast stations in the same market. Officials have also talked of establishing a "diversity index," a formula that would allow them to calculate how much media diversity a given market contains, anticipating how media sales might affect the mix.

So how can you make your voice heard now?

Writing your congressman helps (U.S. Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, for example; check congress.org to find your representative). You can also write legislators on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is chairman) and the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications (Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., is chairman).

If you'd like to send comments to the FCC, type in www.fcc.gov/ownership and follow the instructions, or mail comments to Federal Communications Commission Media Bureau, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism offers a page with links to stories on the issue; go to www.journalism.org and click on the link to "more FCC and media ownership articles." And the Center for Digital Democracy offers a comprehensive page on getting involved at www.democraticmedia.org/issues/mediaownership/index.html "A lot of the public . . . they feel they don't have an option or anyone to listen to them," said Mahaney of the Parents Television Council. "Their complaints to the networks and to the FCC have fallen on deaf ears. And when it comes to an issue like this, we park our political guns at the door. . . . We'll work with anybody."

- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com

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