Saturday 10 May 2003
"Most people in this country have no idea what's about to happen to them even though their very democracy is at stake,''
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Federal Communications Commission's two Democrats said Friday they are frustrated by lack of information on the agency's review of media ownership rules and their chairman's refusal to make proposed changes public.
The agency's media bureau is expected to provide a draft proposal on rule changes to the five FCC commissioners by the end of Monday, three weeks before a planned vote on overhauling rules that govern ownership of newspapers and television and radio stations.
The FCC has been studying whether those decades-old restrictions still reflect a market altered by satellite broadcasts, cable television and the Internet.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said repeatedly that the rules are outdated and should be changed. The two other Republican commissioners are thought to have similar views.
Many large media companies are seeking broad changes to a rules regime that they contend hurts business.
Commissioner Michael Copps, one of the FCC's two Democrats, said that with only a few weeks until the vote, "We don't know what we're going to be working on. It's like a state secret.''
Copps spoke on Capitol Hill alongside Democrats from the Senate Commerce Committee at a panel discussion of experts opposed to media consolidation.
Sens. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said eased ownership restrictions will leave a few giant media companies in control of what people see, read and hear.
"The country is really standing on a cliff when it comes to media concentration,'' Wyden said. "When you go over that cliff you are going to be fundamentally changing what this country is about, and not for the better.''
Current ownership rules prevent mergers between major television networks and limit the number of TV and radio stations a company can own in a market. The rules also prohibit any single company from owning TV stations that reach more than 35 percent of U.S. households or owning a newspaper and a radio or television station in the same city.
A 1996 law required the FCC to study ownership rules every two years. Many changes proposed since then have remained unfinished or were sent back to the FCC after court challenges. Last year, the agency combined reviews of a half-dozen rules into the single effort now under way.
The FCC eased the restriction on major TV network mergers in 2001 by allowing the networks to combine with newer networks like WB or UPN.
Copps criticized arguments that the rules should be eased because cable TV and the Internet provide more diversity as sources of news and entertainment. He said most cable channels and sources of online news already are owned by a few large media companies.
Copps has traveled around the country with fellow FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein in recent months to get public comment on the review. Powell refused their repeated requests to have more than one public FCC hearing.
Lawmakers, musicians, academics and consumer groups have asked Powell to delay the media ownership vote or make public in advance details of proposed changes. Other lawmakers, mainly Republicans, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans have urged Powell to stay on schedule.
Powell has said there is no need for more public comment, and he sees no reason to delay.
Adelstein said the June 2 vote is "a rush to judgment.'' He said he asked Powell to make the recommendations public in a briefing to the commissioners, but the chairman refused.
"It would be helpful to him to eliminate the charge that the public isn't being involved in this,'' Adelstein said. "He said he wouldn't do it.''
Powell had no immediate comment on the Democrats' statements, but last week he singled out Adelstein as one of the commissioners who had been helpful in working with him developing the media ownership proposal.
Adelstein said he was pessimistic his contributions would be included in the draft.
"Most people in this country have no idea what's about to happen to them even though their very democracy is at stake,'' he said.
In the past, FCC commissioners occasionally have asked that an item on their agenda be postponed for a month. Copps and Adelstein said that remains an option, but they will wait until they see the proposal. Powell is not obligated to grant a delay.
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