With Senator Boxer in the leading role, the Democrats perform the first act in their play to stop the FCC from easing broadcast ownership restrictions. It’s entertaining, but pointless.
Media Ownership, The Sequel, is off to a rousing start, and it’s promising to be as good a show as the original 2002-03 version was.
Democrats opposed to relaxing the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules raised the curtain two weeks ago with an ambush of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin who is hoping to ease the restrictions so, among other things, small-market TV station owners can own two TV stations in a market just as large-market broadcasters do.
It happened at Martin’s confirmation hearing. Senator Barbara Boxer produced a dusty old FCC staff study and pretty much accused Martin and his predecessor Michael Powell of burying the study because it suggests that ownership of TV stations by local Rotarians is better than ownership by shadowy figures in faraway lands like Montgomery, Ala.; Providence, R.I., and Richmond, Va.
Last week, Boxer unearthed another FCC study that showed what I thought everybody knew—that the radio industry had consolidated as a result of the 1996 Telcom Act that essentially threw the door to consolidation wide open.
In letters and press releases, Boxer and about three dozen House Democrats demanded an in-house FCC investigation to find out why the studies had disappeared, implying that there was something sinister going on at the Portals. Representative Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.) was over the top, accusing the FCC of suppressing information “just as the White House did in the lead up to war in Iraq.” My goodness.
Meanwhile, Free Press, an organization aggressively opposed to free enterprise in broadcasting, got in on the act last week, releasing a study of its own that shows something else that I thought everybody knew—that women and minorities are grossly underrepresented in the ownership ranks of TV stations.
Democratic Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein sat in on Free Press’s telephone press conference to assert that the dearth of female and minority owners was due to FCC’s lenient ownership rules.
So far, Boxer has been the star of this drama. Martin brought his whole family to his confirmation hearing, figuring the Senators would talk about what a great American he is and he would deflect any tough questions by claiming that he still has an open mind, even though nobody would believe it.
That’s pretty much how it went at first with only Martin’s rambunctious 10-month-old son showing any signs of life. Then, Boxer came to bat and clubbed Martin with the staff study. Knocked off balance, Martin quickly reassured the senator that an FCC task force on TV localism that nobody has heard from in two years was still hard at work.
In any event, you can cross Boxer off the guest list for Thanksgiving dinner at the Martin house.
It was good theater, and it served to remind Martin that a lot of important people on Capitol Hill care about media ownership. And those people may become more important if the Democrats emerge from the November elections in control of the House and/or Senate.
But it’s little more than that. Let’s assume the worse (at least as Boxer sees it) and say that the studies in question both landed on desks of Martin and Powell at some point and that one or both immediately ordered that all copies be bundled up and thrown into the Tidal Basin. Well, so what?
There’s no law against the higher ups shelving staff studies that they don’t think are well done or don’t support the policy goals of the day. And there’s no law that says they have to make them public. I’m willing to bet that if you shook the Portals hard enough, you could fill the Tidal Basin with such memos and studies, some going back to the Hoover Administration.
For the record, Powell and Martin deny having ever seen the studies.
For dramatic purposes, Boxer and her House allies are pretending that the FCC is some kind of academic or scientific institution that has a moral duty to conduct careful studies, submit them to peer review and then weigh them carefully to decide just the right thing to do.
But as Boxer well knows the FCC is a political operation—just like the Senate. In any proceeding, the chairman decides what the result is going to be and then gets the staff to do some selective research to get to that result. The chairman’s principal job is simply making sure he has at least three votes.
That’s what Chairman Michael Powell did when he relaxed the rules in 2003. And that’s what Martin will do next year unless the political climate changes and he loses his nerve or one of his two Republican votes strays. (Martin has to revisit the issue because a federal appeals court rejected the Powell action.)
The Free Press report on ownership diversity is well done. It’s a straightforward accounting of the situation and, let’s face it, the situation isn’t good. Broadcasting would be a lot better off it there were more women and minorities in the ownership ranks—or management ranks, for that matter. Perhaps every newscast in the country wouldn’t look the same.
And it is probably true that further consolidation is unlikely to increase diversity. Most of the people buying stations are those who already own stations and can take advantage of the economies of scale in buying more. Because of those economies, they can usually outbid newcomers of any gender or color. But freezing the ownership rules as they are is not going to help much.
If Free Press, Copps and Adelstein really want more women and minorities in charge, they need to do something other than defend outdated ownership rules that are holding back an industry under increasing competitive and financial stress.
Adelstein said it himself: “We have a legal and moral obligation to take immediate steps to make broadcast media and broadcast coverage more diverse.”
They sure do. Maybe they can enlist Boxer in the effort. How about resurrecting the tax-certificate program that allows sellers of stations to minorities to defer capital gains taxes?
But, of course, that would take a lot of heavy legislative lifting. It’s more fun to put on a show.
If you have a comment on this article, please contact Harry A. Jessell at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].