Free Press graphic being used to draw attention to FCC's proposed changes to ownership rules

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski would like the FCC to vote on a plan to gut media ownership rules. If approved, News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch, who has been considering buying more media, would benefit. The proposal would also allow for more media consolidation.

Using innocuous language to describe a proposal that should raise alarm, Genachowski stated yesterday that he wanted the FCC to “streamline and modernize media ownership rules.” This would include “eliminating outdated prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross-ownership.”

According to a report from Broadcasting & Cable on November 14, the proposal “loosen” the “newspaper/TV cross-ownership ban in the top 20 markets” and get “rid of the ban on radio/TV cross-ownership and radio/newspaper cross-ownership.”

The FCC chairman believes the loosening of a cross-ownership ban would be in the “public interest,” however, there is no way that Genachowski can reasonably claim he knows what the public is interested in when it comes to media ownership rules. The development of this proposal has taken place behind closed-doors without any public input at all.

The media reform group, Free Press, has condemned the FCC for moving ahead with a plan that has been kept “under wraps.” It reported the FCC is attempting to bypass holding the vote at an open FCC meeting and noted that no public hearings have been held.

“The rules are similar to those proposed by then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in 2007,” a statement read. “Martin’s rules were later overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In its decision, the court directed the FCC to study the impact of its rule changes on ownership diversity.”

Broadcasting & Cable reported on November 14 that the FCC had release the long-awaited report on ownership diversity and it had shown minorities and women remained underrepresented. Latinos and women had made a bit of headway while African-Americans had lost ground.

As noted by Free Press, gutting ownership rules would “lead to even lower levels of minority broadcast ownership.” It would also make it possible for Murdoch to purchase the Chicago Tribune or Los Angeles Times, which he has expressed interest in doing.

Media Matters for America put such a purchase into perspective weeks ago when it was reported that Murdoch was shopping for more media to buy:

…One fear is that the takeover [of the Los Angeles Times] could spark an exodus of staff, which occurred at The Wall Street Journal after Murdoch purchased parent company Dow Jones in late 2007. Dozens of the paper’s best journalists left, citing a perceived change in the paper’s focus and at times an increased push for more business-friendly stories.

Several current and former Tribune Company staffers recalled what happened when Murdoch bought the rival Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, later selling it in 1986. The sale sparked the departure of many Sun-Times staffers, including the legendary columnist Mike Royko, who vowed not to work for Murdoch and left for the Tribune

The organization noted, “A News Corp. purchase of the Times and the Tribune would give Murdoch control of four of the top 10 US newspapers by circulation and, as the Times notes, ‘strong footholds in the nation’s three largest media markets.’”

It would not just mean Murdoch would likely buy more media. “If the FCC proposal passes,” according to Free Press, “One company could own the major daily newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in your town. And that one company could be your Internet provider, too.”

Furthermore, as mentioned, a court already overturned proposed rules that gutted ownership rules. Those rule changes came from Martin when George W. Bush was president.

Then, seven public hearings were held. All five FCC commissioners attended. The hearings gave the public an opportunity to share their views with FCC commissioners. The policy proposal was also announced a month before the FCC voted. This gave the public the opportunity for a final opportunity to comment and the rule changes were voted on at an open FCC meeting. It also gave the Senate a chance to pass a resolution on the rules that communicated disapproval.

In contrast, under President Barack Obama, Genachowski has refused to hold public hearings. FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn had to hold her own public hearing in Atlanta, GA, to create some semblance of an opportunity for the public to address the proposal. Public interest groups, civil rights groups and members of Congress have shared their concerns with the proposal, but Genachowski has kept most of the details secret so their concerns have mostly been about the set of proposed rule changes in 2007, which the FCC appears to be trying to pass in some form again.

When Obama was a US senator in Illinois, he advocated “diverse media ownership.” PolitiFact noted, “He included the position in a fact sheet, explaining he would ‘encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.’” He opposed  the proposed FCC rule changes in 2007.

Now, Obama has permitted the FCC to conceal a plan that would allow for more media consolidation. And there has been no indication from Obama that he would support any federal policy that would ensure diversity of media ownership. Essentially, Genachowski has been able to pursue rule changes that owners of Big Media likely support because it allows them to expand their reach and swallow up other media organizations.