Public-policy hearings are usually about as interesting as watching a barista make a latte. Last Friday's Federal Communications Commission hearing on media ownership rules held at the University of Washington was a notable exception.
That's because something crucial was at stake: who will control the flow of news and entertainment in the United States.
Led by its chairman, Michael Powell, the FCC is reviewing a slew of long-standing rules that, for example, bar a TV station from owning a newspaper in the same market or a company from owning more than eight radio stations in a single market. As large an impact as changing those rules might have, Powell, a torchbearer for media deregulation, felt only one public hearing two weeks ago was needed.
So FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called his own hearings, albeit unofficial ones. Seattle was the first; the second will be held in North Carolina later this month. The FCC will vote on potential rule changes by the end of May.
"No issue matches in impact the decision the FCC will make this spring," Copps said. "It may sound like an abstraction, but it's not."
What Copps and fellow Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein heard in Seattle was that many media professionals, predictably enough, fear changing the rules will allow a handful of corporations to so dominate the media landscape that they neuter democratic discourse. Whether this line of thought was coming from Seattle City Council member (and former reporter) Jim Compton or music promoter David Meinert or union head John Sandifer, the 400 or so in attendance cheered as lustily as high-schoolers at a pep rally.
The crowd cheered loudest and longest for Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. In his testimony, Blethen trashed large media corporations for being driven by stock prices instead of journalistic values. He argued that lifting the TV-newspaper cross-ownership ban would shake democracy to its foundations. At times, it appeared that the politically left audience had found a new hero, one whose paper endorsed George W. Bush and recently editorialized in favor of war on Iraq.
Some testimony was utterly specious. For example, Becky Brenner of KMPS-FM, owned by Infinity Broadcasting, claimed that deregulation of the radio market over the last seven years has actually improved the quality and quantity of music listeners hear. She was roundly jeered as was KING/KONG-TV president and general manager Dave Lougee, who argued that companies should be allowed to own two TV stations in a given market.
The most striking aspect of the hearing was that it took place at all. Only six months ago, Powell's push to alter media ownership rules looked to be a slam-dunk. Now, he's run into significant opposition from Copps and Adelstein and from the public at large.
Despite all the Sturm und Drang of the hearing, the real question is what impact any of it will have on the FCC's decision-making process. Technically, the Seattle hearing was unofficial, leaving Powell and other FCC commissioners free to ignore it. And there are already many signs that the FCC has made up its mind on changing some of the rules.