Thursday :: May 22, 2003

Communications Industry Colors What the FCC Sees

by Steve

With Michael Powell’s FCC getting ready in all likelihood to relax already porous media ownership rules at its June 2 meeting, the Center for Public Integrity just completed a study that shows how big media and telecom already colors what the commissioners and staffers are exposed to in doing their jobs.

The study, entitled “Well Connected: FCC and Industry Maintain Cozy Relationship on Many Levels” found:

(B)roadcasting and cable behemoths such as Viacom, Clear Channel and Comcast already dominate many of the nation’s media markets, even as the Federal Communications Commission moves to further relax media ownership rules at a meeting scheduled for June 2. To illustrate this trend, the Center analyzed current media ownership in the hometowns of the five FCC commissioners—though any American can get similar information from the database about his or her hometown with a few simple key strokes.

The Center examined travel records of FCC employees and entered that information into a searchable database, also accessible through the web site.

The report shows that FCC officials have taken 2,500 trips costing nearly $2.8 million over the past eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries the agency regulates. That was in addition to about $2 million a year in official travel funded by taxpayers.

A third report came out of the Center’s data gathering efforts, which revealed a disturbing dependence by the FCC on outside information providers.

The report finds that the FCC’s reliance on non-government private data is so ingrained that when public interest groups asked for access to data underlying a series of media ownership reports last fall, the FCC relented only after issuing a quasi-judicial “protective order” meant to keep the information secret. When the Center was constructing its database of media companies, researchers and reporters were repeatedly referred by FCC staff to private companies for basic information on ownership, audience reach and cable subscribers. Getting market share information, which is key when reviewing whether broadcasters are within existing FCC limits, was all but impossible without going outside the agency.

I continually blame the FCC for the sorry state of our rapidly eroding sense of public airwaves. Given the above information, and in light of the disastrous 1996 TeleCom Act, which I blame largely on the Clinton Administration’s infatuation with the alleged benefits and purported competition of more deregulation of the markets, I think the FCC in its current form no longer serves a public interest. And with the likely consolidation and destruction of locally and family owned media coming after the June 2nd vote, then I think the management of the communications industries in this country should be turned over to the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division, where there will be more political accountability for what happens.

Yes, I know that may be a recipe for disaster with the Bushies in charge, but it will be clearer who is responsible for letting it happen, and a direct connection between the actions or inactions of the administration in charge, and the campaign contributions from the regulated industries can be made. Having supposedly independent bodies regulating industries allows the administration in power to claim detachment from the process while they in fact vacuum up campaign contributions for stacking the panel with industry-friendly commissioners.

And its not like the FCC has been doing anything lately to improve competition and choice anyway, right? So let’s stop the charade now and make George accountable.

Update: At the fine recommendation of MattS, read the interesting critique of the FCC and its anti-conservative (read: anti-local control) drift. And keep in mind this is written by Bill Safire, of all people.

Steve :: 7:11 AM :: Comments (8) :: Digg It!