Promises To Keep

When Barack Obama ran for his first term, he was already clearly on-record stating his opposition to further media industry consolidation and his support for reasserting the public interest.

In his September 20, 2007 statement for a Federal Communications Commission public hearing in Chicago, then-Senator Obama said: “I believe that the nation’s media ownership rules remain necessary and are critical to the public interest. We should be doing much more to encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and establish greater clarity in the public interest obligations of broadcasters occupying the nation’s spectrum.”

I wasn’t surprised at Obama’s commitment to more diverse, local, and competitive media, because in a July 19, 2006 letter to the FCC, he and Senator John Kerry had written: “We strongly believe that the FCC should address the issues of minority and small business media ownership before taking up the wider media ownership issue.”

Seven months later, on February 5, 2007, Senators Obama and Richard Durbin wrote the Commission: “We are concerned that meaningful participation in the media marketplace is becoming increasingly dependent on the kind of access to capital that only large media conglomerates can generate.” They went on: “In the case of minority ownership of broadcast outlets, as Commissioner Copps has pointed out, there has been no improvement in the level of minority ownership…. The number of African-American stations since 1998 has fallen 30 percent.” They closed by emphasizing “that broadcast ownership rules directly implicate core American values such as diversity, localism, representation, and a competitive marketplace of ideas.”

On October 22, 2007, Senator Obama wrote to then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin: “I object to the agency moving forward to allow greater consolidation in the media market without first fully understanding how that would limit opportunities for minority, small business, and women owned firms.” He closed with a plea to the Commission to stop the mad rush, suggesting that instead of voting on Chairman Martin’s proposal to dramatically loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, the FCC should “complete a proceeding on the responsibilities that broadcasters have to the communities in which they operate.”

President Obama’s first term has come and almost gone. Important national priorities have been tackled and major legislative and executive milestones have been achieved. Reforming media policy was not among them. Now comes the second term and the opportunity to deliver on his earlier approach by tackling the declining state of America’s news and information ecosystem. This essential infrastructure of democracy has suffered the same kind of collapse as so much of America’s physical infrastructure—witness the sorry state of our bridges, highways, streets, public transportation, airports and public utilities. So, too, in media. Private sector consolidation led to the closing of hundreds of newsrooms and the firing of thousands of investigative reporters who should be combing the beats to hold the powerful accountable. Instead journalism has been hollowed out as badly as those rust-belt steel mills. Investigative journalism hangs by a slender thread, replaced by vapid infotainment, bloviating talking heads, and a dry well of facts and real-world analysis.

The public sector is at least equally culpable because government—especially the FCC where I served for more than a decade—blessed just about every media merger and acquisition that came before it. Then it proceeded, over the better part of a generation, to eviscerate almost all of the specific public interest guidelines that had been put in place over many years to ensure that the people’s airwaves actually serve the people.

Fast forward to 2012. Oh, wait! Are we back in 2007? Isn’t the current FCC about to vote on pretty much the same proposal loosening the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule that the majority voted for back in 2007? Shockingly, the new proposal goes even beyond the 2007 proceeding by actually permitting more radio-TV consolidation, too—putting diversity-owned radio stations at greater risk of take-over by the media giants.

The pending proposal does all this without coming close to meeting the demands of the Third Circuit federal court that refused to accept the 2007 rules (and a prior 2003 attempt to loosen the ownership rules, too) largely because those rules failed to deal with the lack of minority ownership. What has changed in the interim, other than the statistics of minority ownership getting even worse? Does the Commission really need the court to tell it “no” yet another time? That would be three—a strike-out where I come from. Let’s be clear here: the proposal currently before the Commission would make it decidedly more difficult for minorities and women to have their own stations.

Instead of hurrying in the wrong direction, wouldn’t the Commission’s time be better utilized by considering (and actually voting on) some of the dozens of recommendations that have been put before it by civil rights and public interest groups to establish programs and incentives to encourage minority and female ownership? It is time for the FCC to take a deep breath, change direction, and get on with the huge challenge of encouraging a diverse media environment that serves all of our citizens and that nourishes a thriving civic dialogue.

President Obama is less than half-way through his Presidency. I believe he understands that some of the issues he cares about have not yet had a fair hearing. I am not ready to believe that he will close the door on this issue that goes to the very ability of our media to nourish and sustain the kind of informed civic dialogue on which the course of American self-government depends.

But, just to be sure, let’s remind him—and the Commission—how important We, the People, believe this is.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.

By Michael Copps.