FCC Gives Public A Last-Minute Listen? Don't Believe the Hype

It’s enough to make you puke: the FCC has released its agenda for the one and only “official public hearing” it will hold on its pending revisions to media ownership rules. Check it out in text (page 1, page 2) or .PDF (page 1, page 2) format.
After the corporate media belatedly began covering the issue (publishing its first stories on the weekend after the written public comment period officially closed), and after an outburst of concern from Congress over the FCC’s foregone conclusions (bigger media is better), FCC Chairman Michael Powell responded like the savvy politician he is. In a symbolic display of civic engagement he agreed to convene the Commission for one “public hearing” in Richmond, Virginia – a whopping 100 miles from Washington, D.C.
While one Commissioner (out of 5) has agitated for a nationwide tour of the country to gather a better sampling of public opinion, Mikey Powell cited the bad economy and a need to constrain the FCC’s travel budget as the reason for picking Richmond. He also claimed that, since a “record” number of written public comments were filed on the actual rulemaking proceedings themselves, actually *speaking with people* would be redundant.
In case anyone hasn’t gotten the hint by now, Mikey Powell and the FCC really doesn’t WANT to hear from the public on the issue of media ownership. Chances are, they wouldn’t like what they hear. It’s much easier for Mikey & the FCC to deal in the colder, more abstract world of economic formulae and paper correspondence between “constituencies” than it is to actually engage the public which makes up that “public interest, convenience and necessity” they were chartered to uphold.
Which brings us back to this singular public hearing, slated to take place on Thursday (Feb. 27). It is a marathon six-hour session; sounds pretty good, right? Should be able to pack quite a bit of public input into those six hours.
Think again. The “hearing” has become a “forum,” with an hour-long introductory performance, three 50-minute panel discussions and an hour for lunch. The panels are packed with “experts” – scholars, media executives, professional journalists, and inside-the-Beltway public interest advocates (read: lobbyists with consciences). In other words, these are the same people that have been discussing the issues of media ownership among themselves the whole f*cking time, mostly in private.
For public benefit they will be paraded in front of an audience in Richmond to pontificate and “debate” the FCC’s media ownership work and its impact, which I’m sure will be quite lively (each panel contains at least one representative from the two constructed sides of the argument: more vs. less regulation).
In between each panel, the audience will get 30 minutes of open-mic time.
Just from a mathematical standpoint, the fact that only 90 minutes of this six-hour event is actually devoted to public comment sucks large ass and says a lot. It also validates a view I’ve held throughout this whole farce – that it is a farce.
Folks, I hate to be a party pooper here, but the FCC committed to the changes it will make to the media ownership rules before this whole rulemaking even got rolling. The recent and sudden outburst of publicity and faux attention is window-dressing to give the changes a sense of legitimacy. This is why you haven’t seen much coverage of it here.
The fact that the public, in some substantive way, responded to the news, I think, caught the FCC off-guard. It sure as hell did Congress, who immediately convened hearings of their own so as to have a forum to mouth platitudes of concern over the FCC’s corporate-friendly leanings. Keep in mind that it was Congress who set the FCC whinging off in this direction in the first place back in 1996. Reap what you sow.
Let us also not forget that Congress and big media have a vested interest in each other. There is no way in hell Congress will upset the apple cart it has so carefully filled through financial symbiosis (congresscritters need money for campaigns, media corps donate heavily to them, and the money flows back to the media thru political ads during election seasons).
“Holy sh*t,” said Washington. “We better act like we care.” What you will see and hear on Thursday in Richmond is the climax of this process. We will be told stories about how media ownership regulation is both good and bad. Two sides will argue in a civil manner. The motions of discourse will be gone through, which will satisfy the veneer of a democratic process.
Citizens, that ubiquitous “public” the policy makers and wonks always talk about, will say the least, again. Once the show is over, it’ll be back to business as usual.
When the rule changes are officially handed down, they will be, for the most part, what big media has been hoping for and working toward over the last several years: a marketplace pretty much allowed to run free, relieved of all substantive burden of actually serving a public interest. We’ll see further industry consolidation and decimation of the potential for democratic discourse of, by, and for the people themselves. After all, we’re only consumers now.
Sure, they will not be in the exact form as they’ve been pre-conceived, but the revised media ownership rules will have essentially the same function. What changes that are made out of deference to public input will be either cosmetic or provisional: the FCC recently launched an internal project to devise an economic formula that will somehow quantify diversity, localism and access in/to media markets. Yeah, math’s the ticket out of our woes!
Things are going to get much worse before they get better in our mythical marketplace of ideas. And we’ve kind of passed the point of no return here; the answer to this dilemma no longer lies in D.C. It is pretty much a lost cause to devote more time and energy into what happens there.
I suspect when the actual damage is done lots more people will come to this realization. Further alienation will spark action, direct and indirect. This is a good thing, but it’ll take quite some time to regain what we’re about to lose. Might as well get a head start on the work.