New FCC head must not repeat mistakes

Guest Columnist

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When Michael Powell resigned as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year, he left behind a legacy — a legacy of ignoring the public’s requests and pandering to giant media conglomerates. On March 16, President Bush finally appointed his replacement, Kevin J. Martin, who had previously held another seat on the commission.

Martin faces a difficult task. He must play cleanup to the mess his predecessor left behind. Unfortunately, his mixed record raises questions as to how much cleaning he can or will do.

Robert McChesney, media critic and founder of Free Press, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing public awareness on media issues, expressed concern about the appointment of Martin.

“Martin has not distinguished himself as the defender of the public interest during his tenure at the FCC,” wrote McChesney in a Free Press statement. “Too often, he has done the bidding of industry lobbyists and made decisions behind closed doors without public input. His new position presents a great opportunity to change course and instead listen to average citizens about the crucial policy decisions that will shape the future of the media.”

Indeed, Martin did vote for the controversial deregulation rules in June 2003, which seemingly suggests the big media companies are his own special interest. But he has also expressed support for media ownership limits, if only in words.

“I believe the affiliates made a compelling case as to why a national limit needs to be retained,” Martin has said. “I agree that a balance between the affiliates and the networks is important to maintaining localism, and thus I did not support proposals in the record to eliminate the cap altogether.”

While his vote told an opposing story, hopefully this remark shows that he has kept an open mind as to what limits need to be out in place, something his predecessor did not. Maybe Martin’s flip-flopping on this issue will eventually work to the public’s benefit. One can only hope.

Martin must look out for the interests of the American people — whom he really works for — specifically starting with seriously examining current media ownership rules.

Media scholar Ben Bagdikian, along with McChesney, notes that media monopolies hurt democracy by not allowing the people to hear a wide range of diverging voices. The Supreme Court has agreed, saying, “The widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.”

Thousands of letters were sent protesting the FCC’s 2003 vote on deregulation. Members of both major parties in Congress came together to fight the FCC on the issue. The people spoke and did not want ownership limits loosened. But under Powell’s reign, the FCC enjoyed ignoring the wishes of the public.

In fact, lately the FCC has concerned itself with an issue that a lot of people could care less about, while ignoring the bigger issue of conglomeration. The FCC’s rampage against indecency in the airwaves, which has collected millions of dollars in fines, was spurred by complaints that largely — 99 percent — came from one organization, L. Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council, according to a report by AlterNet.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Martin seems to want to increase tactics in the war on indecency, believing fines are inadequate, according the Benton Foundation, an organization dedicated to articulating public interest in the media.

Maybe this shows some promise, as he wants bring back family hour, which would allow only family-friendly programs in the first hour of prime time, so that children are not exposed to as much adult subject matter. But hopefully his crusade will not make him lose sight of other issues important to the public.

In a letter to President Bush before he appointed Martin, the Benton Foundation wrote: “The new FCC Chair should understand that access to a diversity of information and viewpoints is critical to a healthy democracy. Concerns about media concentration and cross ownership reflect a faith in the wisdom of the American people who, if presented with a range of ideas and programming, can make informed choices.”

A perfect example of how giant media companies diminish viewpoints is Clear Channel’s ousting of the Dixie Chicks two years ago. After the band spoke out against the war, Clear Channel led a boycott against them and refused to play their music. And since Clear Channel holds an impenetrable hold on the radio market, thanks to the FCC, the Dixie Chicks lost a major artistic venue, and had their voices silenced. The public’s opinions on the Dixie Chicks or the war did not matter.

The public, in theory, owns the airwaves, Mr. Martin. Do not ever forget that, as Powell did again and again.

James Zvonec is a graduate student studying mass communication.