Fat Cats Rule

The public owns the airwaves, but big media moguls have bought the FCC

This month's 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to remove barriers to corporate consolidation of the media capped a process that, even by the standards of George W. Bush's Washington, bent the rules to serve the special interests.

But the special interests and their allies in the FCC majority may have finally bent those rules to the breaking point. Indeed, even as he objected to the decision, dissenting Commissioner Michael Copps said, "The obscurity of this issue that many have relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood this issue, is gone forever."

There is no question that, for the first time in recent American history, media ownership has become a political issue. And perhaps as significantly, the scandalous way in which the FCC does business has been exposed.

"If ever we needed an example of what is wrong with the way in which the FCC handles issues of media ownership, the fight over these rule changes provides it," said U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the leading critic of media consolidation in Congress. "We have seen that, at the FCC, the regulators do not regulate the industry. It's the opposite: The industry regulates the regulators. And that has to change."

In addition to provoking passionate opposition from civil rights, consumer, labor, religious and community groups across the country, this spring's debate over the six sweeping changes in media ownership regulations drew more scrutiny toward the FCC than had ever been seen before. And that attention has revealed an agency where corporations that are supposed to be regulated enjoy extraordinary access to the regulators and the favorable treatment that extends from that access.

The FCC majority went to such extremes in assuring a result that would satisfy the demands of the nation's most powerful media corporations that the two dissenting commissioners took the rare step of criticizing the majority for producing what Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein referred to as an "outcome-driven political document."

"When this full document is finally made public, I expect it will be torn apart by media experts, academics, consumer groups, activists, and most of all, the American people," explained Adelstein. "They will find it riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, false assumptions and outcome-driven thinking."

In a city where political discourse is still tempered at most turns by cautious and false politeness, Adelstein was refreshingly blunt Monday as he stated the reasons for his dissent. While noting the overwhelming opposition to the rule changes expressed by consumer, labor, religious, civil rights, journalism and academic groups, the commissioner focused particularly on the concerns stated by the more than 750,000 citizens who personally contacted the FCC to signal their fears about media consolidation and monopoly. Speaking of the American people, Adelstein said, "Today's decision overrides their better judgment. It instead relies on the reasoning of a handful of powerful media companies who have a vested financial interest. Those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves won out over the public."

How did 'those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves" win out?In the weeks before the vote, the Center for Public Integrity detailed the cozy relationship between the FCC majority, key staffers and the industries they are supposed to police.

The Center revealed that FCC commissioners and staffers have taken more than 2,500 junkets — at a cost of almost $2.8-million — that were paid for by the interests they are supposed to police. And it came as no surprise to anyone that FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the primary proponent of the six rule changes, was among the chief recipients of the first-class flights, luxury hotel suites and other favors that the media giants used to influence the decision- making process. Assessing the study's findings, Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis said, "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."

The idea grew even more laughable on the eve of the vote, as the same Washington-based public interest research center revealed that, over the past eight months, owners and lobbyists for the country's largest broadcasting conglomerates met behind closed doors with FCC officials 71 times to discuss the rule changes that would allow big media to get dramatically bigger.

While the media conglomerates that favor the relaxing of ownership rules continue to claim that they are in competition with one another, the Center for Public Integrity study revealed that, "At some of the sessions [with commissioners and FCC staffers] executives from the nation's top broadcasters, such as News Corp./Fox, General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC, teamed together to lobby for the proposed changes."

In a measure of how seriously the broadcast conglomerates took the proposed rule changes — designed to make it dramatically easier for a single company to control most of the media in one city, while also permitting national networks to buy up more local stations — the most powerful men in global media trekked to the FCC building for the closed door meetings. "Media moguls Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns Fox, and Mel Karmazin of Viacom, which owns CBS, virtually dashed from one FCC office to another for a series of private meetings with commissioners and top staff in late January and early February, as the agency was crafting the controversial proposals," explained the Center's Bob Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.

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