FCC Media Deregulation Plan Overturned
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release July 12, 2004
Prometheus Radio Project Wins Federal Court Case Overturning FCC Media Deregulation Plan
- Interview with Hannah Sassaman, The Prometheus Radio Project program director, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
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In late June, a victory for the public, and especially for community media, was handed down by a U.S. District Court when it ruled the Federal Communications Commission had to come up with a new set of rules governing access to the public airwaves. At the forefront of this struggle was the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group that supports low-power FM broadcasting and media democracy.
In June 2003, the FCC ignored 3 million comments sent in by people opposed to the commission's proposal to deregulate big media corporations that would have permitted unprecedented industry consolidation. The public's response to the FCC measure was by far the largest-ever on proposed rule changes by any governmental body. Prometheus was the lead plaintiff, joined by other groups, in a lawsuit against the FCC that was filed a year ago.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Hannah Sassaman, program director of the Prometheus Radio Project, about the danger the original FCC rule changes posed, not only by concentrating ownership within a medium like radio or television, but across all communications media. She also discusses a promising new development in Congress.
Hannah Sassaman: One of the rules that the FCC was putting forward is that there wouldn’t be any problem with newspaper and broadcast cross-ownership, meaning that in one town, one company could own two radio stations, two TV stations, the newspaper, a bunch of billboards, concert venues, ticketing agencies ? basically allowing major consolidation all across the United States. When this was happening, almost 3 million people wrote the FCC and said, "No, this is not going to be good for our democracy or for our ability to have free speech or to have local competition in our markets made by people who actually live here." That was the big thing that was happening, and there were so many people all over the country, from different sides of the spectrum, so this was a bipartisan coalition that even though (it) got 3 million comments in to the FCC, the FCC ignored them. So we sued them. And then people started making oral arguments in front of the Third District Court of Appeals here in Philadelphia, saying, "Yes, these rules that have been put forward are not going to protect the public interest, or are not going to protect what people have been asking for from their media system." The FCC put forward arguments saying, "Well, we have a responsibility to just deregulate in the public interest. That’ what we do -- we just throw away rules." The broadcasters were saying the same thing. The judges determined that the FCC had not proven that they had served what they were supposed to do -- serve the needs of the American public when they had established those rules. And so now, they are back in the hands of the FCC to be restructured in a way that does serve the public interest. So it’s going to be up to us and to groups like us and other groups all over the country to make sure that the great public debate that’s been happening over the past couple years about how media could be better, how more independent radio could flourish, how existing broadcasters could have real stringent obligations to their communities that actually make sure that people are getting diverse, competitive viewpoints. They’re going to be listening to us, listening to the voices of the people all across America when they make those rules. That’s what we’re going to be working on now.
Between The Lines: Is the FCC going to appeal the decision?
Hannah Sassaman: We’ve heard from our lawyers that it is very unlikely that the FCC would be able to get a judicial appeal. There’s really no case that can be made in the courts that this should be retried, mainly because the Third District Court of Appeals, when they looked at everyone’s arguments -- including ours, the citizen petitioners, the FCC’s, and the big broadcasters -- there were no constitutional grounds for any of the arguments we were making. So it looks like what’s going to happen is the FCC is going to have to go back to the drawing board and redo these rules.
Between The Lines: As of now it’s the same make-up on the commission? I know Commissioner Michael Powell is talking of stepping down.
Hannah Sassaman: What the panel looks like, what the commissioners’ distribution looks like in the next few months, is going to depend a whole lot on the election in the fall. We definitely consider Commissioner Michael Copps to be one of the strongest fighter for what the public really needs in terms of a really good set of radio, TV stations, newspapers that are diverse and representative. He really thinks that’s important, and really, truly believes it’s the responsibility of the FCC to regulate in ways that people can really use the public airwaves to put across their own viewpoints and to hear lots of different viewpoints. Commissioner Michael Powell, on the other hand, has been quoted on record that he considers the big businesses to be his clients, rather than the American people.
Between The Lines: Do you think the FCC could put out the same rules again?
Hannah Sassaman: It’s very unlikely that they’d be able to justify putting out the same rules as they tried to last June. The court did say that it’s not completely insane that the FCC recommend that the ban between newspaper and broadcast cross-ownership -- letting a newspaper and a TV station or a radio station be owned by the same company in a particular town -- that’s not totally ludicrous to them. What is crazy to them is that the FCC put forward such poorly researched and argued evidence that that was necessary. So that’s back in the laps of the FCC. If they want a newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban lifted, they’ll have to prove that it serve the needs of the American public to lift that ban.
What we really need to focus on is that everyone across the country who cares about diversity about ownership in media and who also cares about getting locally-owned independent stations where people can actually go in and broadcast their news and their ideas, making sure that those really proliferate.
The one other thing that Prometheus is working on is expanding the low-power FM service. Sen. John McCain just put on the table Senate Bill 2505. If that bill is passed, it will bring thousands more community radio stations ? LPFM stations ? to towns and cities all across America. So if you want a specific, concrete way to put your desire for local media into practice, call up your senators today and ask them to co-sponsor or support S-2505, which will expand the low-power FM service.
For more information, call (215) 727-9620 or visit the group's website at www.Prometheusradio.org
Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( http://www.btlonline.org) for the week ending July 16, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.
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