FCC Spin vs. Fact

Last month an L.A. Times article wrongly suggested that there was little opposition to the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to gut longstanding media ownership rules. Since then:

  • More than 100,000 people have signed a petition telling the FCC to abandon its giveaway to big media.
  • More than 600 people have called members of Congress and asked them to oppose the FCC’s action.
  • Ten senators have written letters to the FCC in protest of its march toward more media consolidation.
  • More than 40 local and national civil rights organizations representing millions of constituents have raised concerns about the rule changes.

The FCC is feeling the pressure and starting to respond. On Monday, Bill Lake, the agency’s media bureau chief, tried to defend the FCC’s track record on transparency. However, Lake’s claims are more spin than substance. Let’s break it all down:

SPIN: The FCC says it has been taking public comments on its proposal for two years and held six public workshops.

FACT: The FCC pats itself on the back for holding six workshops, but these offered far less opportunity for public input than the public hearings former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin held on a similar proposal in 2006 and 2007. Martin’s FCC held seven public hearings in communities outside the Washington, D.C. bubble, and held most in the evenings so working people could take part (and thousands did).

In contrast, Chairman Julius Genachowski’s FCC held three workshops in D.C. and three outside — almost all on weekday mornings. In 2006–2007, all five FCC commissioners attended hearings around the country, sometimes staying until 2 a.m. to hear those who showed up to make their voices heard.

This time around none of the workshops included participation by all five commissioners and public comment time was limited. Former Commissioner Michael Copps, a strident foe of media consolidation, attended the first two FCC workshops, and Commissioner Robert McDowell attended the third. Not one commissioner attended any of the three workshops held outside D.C.

SPIN: The FCC claims it released an unprecedented amount of detail about itsproposal in advance.

FACT: The Notice of Inquiry and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the FCC released did contain some details about the changes the agency was considering. We responded in detail to these notices, but now the agency is trying to move ahead without publishing its final proposal and analysis first.

If the FCC is so committed to transparency, why not release the final details — especially if it plans to rule against the vast majority of public comments in its docket? Transparency is just a dog-and-pony show if there isn’t meaningful accountability to match. If the FCC was never planning to listen to the public then its nod to transparency is meaningless.

SPIN: The FCC announced that it would open up a 30-day comment period for the public to respond to the agency’s new data on the dismal numbers for media ownership by women and people of color.

FACT: The last time the FCC tried to push through these same rule changes, the courts threw the plan out because the agency had failed to study how the changes would impact media diversity (part of the FCC’s congressional mandate). The agency can’t simply release its data and give the public a few weeks over the holidays to respond (the initial deadline is Dec. 26 — a timeframe that really encourages public participation, right?).

The court told the FCC it had to study the impact of any rule changes on media diversity before adopting those changes. So the burden is on the FCC itself to explain the incredibly low ownership figures for women and people of color and study the impact its rule changes would have.

SPIN: Finally, in the “not fit for the FCC blog” category, Lake emailed a statement to reporters arguing that the FCC’s rule changes wouldn’t lead to a big media giveaway to Rupert Murdoch.

FACT: We’ve been saying that these rule changes would open the doors to Rupert Murdoch owning the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, which is currently illegal because Murdoch owns TV stations in both Los Angeles and Chicago.

The FCC proposal targets stations outside the top four in each media market. In L.A. and Chicago, the Fox stations — which Murdoch owns — often fall outside the top four due to the strong viewership of Spanish-language and independent stations in those cities. Therefore, the FCC proposal would enable Murdoch to maintain ownership of these stations and buy the Times and Tribune.

On top of that, we know that just last Monday News Corp. lobbyists visited the FCC chairman’s office and pushed him to relax the ownership rules even further.