FCC Media Ownership Hearing Comes to Chicago, September 2007
Mitchell Szczepanczyk, August 10, 2007
On September 20, 2007, the Federal Communications Commission will hold a hearing in Chicago (at a time and place yet to be announced) -- a hearing that shouldn't even be happening, but is thanks to grassroots activist pressure.
The story of this event dates back almost exactly five years earlier, when the FCC in September 2002 announced a series of controversial media ownership rule changes. These rules would have made it possible for a single company to own in a single city a newspaper, up to three TV stations, up to eight radio stations, and an internet service provider -- in other words, a media monopoly for many communities in the United States.
Locally, Chicago's very own Tribune Company was pushing hard for these FCC rule changes for two big reasons: One, the Tribune's growth strategy hinged on establishing TV-newspaper duopolies that were allowed by the controversial rule changes, and two, The Tribune was (and still is) violating that TV-newspaper duopoly rule in at least four cities across America.
But the U.S. media stood to cash in big on the proposed rule changes, and so gave the issue almost no coverage. So it fell upon citizen activists, in Chicago and elsewhere, to raise a hue and cry about the issue before the rules went into effect. [Full disclosure: I was, and am, one of those citizen activists.]
The efforts succeeded. Citizen activists made an end run around the media to highlight the issue, and were helped by a number of factors: first off, the increasing use of the internet as an information resource, also, discontent over poor media coverage of anti-war voices in the months preceding the March 2003 launch, and an unprecedented left-right tactical coalition, where groups on the left like Code Pink and groups on the right like the NRA found themselves working on the same side on an issue.
The FCC predictably rubber-stamped the ownership rule changes, but the resulting outcry was anything but predictable. Some three million people -- a new record -- cried out demanding redress, and got it when an emergency court order acknowledged the outcry and froze the rule changes cold. That bought time for a lawsuit which reversed the rule changes and forced the FCC to start over. A round of appeals by the FCC and the media lobby (including one appeal led by the Tribune Company) was rebuffed. So the FCC has to push the reset button, and in August 2006 formally revisited the matter.
In some respects, the do-over is better. For example, the FCC has promised at least six formal public hearings on the issue across the U.S. and has delivered on four of them so far. Chicago will be locale of the fifth, on September 20, 2007 -- at a locale and time yet to be announced.
There's an irony worthy of Alanis Morrisette: The very hearing is the direct result of actions galvanized by grassroots citizen activists, yet there is practically no chance that grassroots citizen activists will be selected as panelists. Still, most of the hearing will be dedicated to public comment, and you are hereby encouraged to attend and participate. Start honing your message for the two minutes of time allotted. (You can also submit longer written comments to the FCC.) Bring four friends and you can get ten minutes; bring a rally baton for dramatic effect.
Stay tuned to Chicago 6 Corners for further developments in this extraordinary story.