VERMONT - It's not every day that Vermonters get a say in rewriting the Federal Communications Commission rules governing who can own newspapers, radio stations, network affiliates and cable TV systems in their own communities. But starting this year, "Everything is up for grabs."
At least, that's the word from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a leading advocate for the reform of U.S. media ownership laws. Adelstein comes to the state this week, at the invitation of Senator Bernie Sanders, to hear what Vermonters have to say about the effects of media consolidation on their communities and on the democratic process.
"The law says we're supposed to serve the public interest, not the interests of the corporate giants we oversee," says Adelstein, one of only two Democrats on the five-member regulatory panel. "So, there's no better opportunity to determine what we should be doing than actually talking to the public about what they think is in their best interest."
By law, the FCC is required to review its media ownership rules every four years. But those reviews are often unduly influenced by large, corporate interests, Adelstein notes. Media reform activists from across the political spectrum have long complained about the pernicious effects of allowing print and broadcast outlets to be consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer large, multinational corporations. They contend that media consolidation reduces the diversity of voices over the airwaves and limits debates on important and controversial issues.
For example, one-third of America's independently owned television stations have disappeared since 1975. Today, just five corporations own all the broadcast networks; 90 percent of the top-50 cable TV networks now produce three-quarters of all prime-time programming.
Adelstein's visit to Vermont is part of his nationwide tour to solicit public feedback on the FCC's current rules. Although Sanders' town meeting is not an "official" congressional hearing, Adelstein says the public comments will become part of the FCC's record and will be considered when the full commission deliberates on its rules later this year.
This week's town meeting, at St. Michael's College in Colchester, is also an opportunity for Sanders to unveil his soon-to-be-introduced legislation - the "Media Ownership Reform Act," or MORA, which he calls "the most sweeping and comprehensive media reform legislation ever introduced in Congress.
"Over the years, basically all of the responsibilities that were asked of media owners have been diminished. There's virtually nothing left," Sanders asserts. "And now, their only job is to make as much money as possible in any way they can."
A key feature of MORA would be to restore the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" of the 1934 Communications Act, which once required broadcast licensees to ensure that all coverage of pressing and controversial issues be balanced and fair. But the FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, under pressure from President Reagan.
"It doesn't mean that Rush Limbaugh would have to give two sides of the story," Sanders tells Seven Days, "but it does mean that you can't have what you have now, which is networks in which 95 to 98 percent of the broadcasting is one point of view, usually right-wing extremism."
MORA would also restore the caps on broadcast ownership. Media reformers argue that such a move would help increase station ownership by women and minorities. As Adelstein points out, minorities make up 30 percent of the nation's population but own just 3 percent of all broadcast licenses.
In addition, MORA would prevent one company from owning broadcast stations that reach more than 35 percent of the U.S. television market. It would re-establish the national cap that prevents a single company from owning more than 5 percent of the nation's AM and FM radio stations. It would restrict companies from owning more than a certain number of stations within a single market. And it would prevent a company from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market.
"You should be asking people in your community how they'd feel if The Burlington Free Press were able to buy broadcast outlets in radio and TV," Adelstein says. "That's something to think about."
In fact, the Gannett Company, which owns The Burlington Free Press, has been leading the charge to relax the FCC's cross-ownership ban, according to published reports.
Finally, Sanders' new legislation would require more rigorous reviews of broadcast licenses when they're up for renewal. License renewals would be reduced from once every eight years to once every three years, and licenses could be revoked for failure to serve "the public interest," rather than just "rubber-stamped every eight years" the way they are now, Adelstein says.
"We virtually never deny a radio or TV license because they're not meeting the public interest," he adds. "It's time to beef that up and give the public some accountability."
The effects of media consolidation are well documented. In January 2002, police and fire officials in Minot, N.D., had trouble notifying the public about a toxic chemical spill, in part because all the TV stations were off the air and the "local" radio stations were playing piped-in music from remote locations, with no local DJs.
But Sanders says the consequences of media consolidation go beyond such isolated incidents and go to heart of the democratic process. He argues that during the lead-up to the war in Iraq, for example, the mainstream media became "a cheerleader for the White House" and presented only one point of view: support for the war.
"If you're concerned about the war in Iraq, if you're concerned about global warming, health care, the economy, education, whatever it may be, you must be concerned about media ownership," Sanders suggests. "Because people make decisions based on what they see, hear and read. If they're not getting differing points of view, then it's hard for them to make good decisions."
A Vermont Town Meeting on Media Reform, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), will take place at the McCarthy Arts Center at St. Michael's College on Tuesday, February 20, at 7 p.m.