Will Big Media bury us?

As the FCC heads to Tampa for a national hearing, free-press activists warn that journalism — and democracy — are in danger

You can pick up a copy of the largest weekly paper in Plant City, drive into Tampa while checking the I-4 traffic conditions on TBO.com on your Treo, stop at a convenience store for a Tampa Tribune, peruse a free copy of the Spanish-language weekly Centro Mi Diario and get home in time for the 5:30 p.m. broadcast of Newschannel 8 — all without ever leaving the warm newsy embrace of the Media General empire.

That's because the Richmond, Va.-based media giant owns many of Tampa Bay's most popular sources of news and information.

How powerful is that?

"If media is the town square," said Brad Ashwell, the director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, "that company owns the town square."

Media General has an advantage that most other media companies don't: Its common ownership of a newspaper and TV station in the same city is grandfathered, exempt from a 1975 rule prohibiting such cross-ownership.

But that rule could soon be history.

Four years after an unsuccessful attempt by the then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael (son of Colin) Powell to allow more media consolidation (it was blocked in the courts), all five current FCC commissioners — two Democrats and three Republicans — are coming to Tampa Bay on Monday for a seven-hour public hearing that could pave the way for the change. Current rules limit the number of radio or TV stations any one company can own and bar media giants from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market.

What's at stake?

"The future of the American media is at stake," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat. "The decisions we make could shape the media for generations to come. Any mistakes could be virtually irrevocable. Once the toothpaste is outside the tube, you can't put it back in."

What's at stake?

"Just democracy, that's all," said Louise Thompson, executive director of Speak Up Tampa Bay, the nonprofit that operates Hillsborough County's public access cable TV station. "Just a little thing."

What's at stake?

Billions of dollars in potential corporate profits.

It is perhaps the most passionate grassroots political movement in America today, and chances are you have never heard of it. But on a recent Monday afternoon, free media advocates gathered on a conference call to plan how to turn out a large crowd for the Tampa FCC public hearing, the fourth of only six official hearings being held in cities across the U.S. Audience members will be allowed to give two-minute comments after panels of experts testify.

The movement to stop Big Media is a veritable Who's Who of activist groups, many of them left-leaning (although the issue doesn't break down neatly along partisan lines): Florida PIRG. Speak Up Tampa Bay. Labor unions. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Common Cause. Free Press. Consumers Union. The League of Women Voters. Media & Democracy Coalition.

"This is one of the most important citizen action campaigns going on in the country," said the other Democratic FCC Commissioner, Michael Copps, "and it gets no coverage from the big media because it's their ox being gored."

Big Media argues — and finds a generally receptive audience with a majority of FCC commissioners, the three Republican appointees — that the media landscape is changing with the advent of the digital age, giving consumers innumerable new choices for their news and public affairs. The old rules, they insist, limit the flow of information and stifle innovation. Having a monopoly on information is simply impossible these days, they say.

This fight has been going on since 2003, when Michael Powell, a Bush appointee, tried to change ownership rules with very little public input. The current FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000, has worked smarter — and that has free press advocates worried. Martin ordered numerous studies and public hearings to take input and has yet to announce how he will change the media ownership rules. He has publicly talked about "moving communications into the 21st century" while trying to reassure the public that "the Commission has three core goals that our rules are intended to further: competition, diversity and localism."

At each of the three previous hearings, hundreds of speakers lambasted the commission for even considering relaxing rules further, arguing against the homogenization, standardization and "race to the bottom" in modern television and radio news.

The October 2006 kickoff hearing was in Los Angeles, for instance, drew 1,000 people, including luminaries such as film director Taylor Hackford, television producer Stephen Cannell and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.

"Ten years ago, Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, opening the floodgates of almost unlimited consolidation in the radio industry," Mills testified in L.A. "On this important 10-year anniversary, we should all ask the question, 'Is American radio better than it was 10 years ago?' The answer, in my estimation, is an emphatic 'No.'"

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