FCC Grilled on the Hill: Going Through the Motions

Yesterday the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing concerning competition in the telecommunications industries. All five members of the FCC were present and all were quizzed by the Senators on various issues, most of which dealt with the series of regulatory reviews curently underway at the agency.
The FCC’s review of media ownership reviews wasn’t the hottest topic of the hearing, but the subject did arise. During those brief moments some choice quotes were uttered.
The best came from FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has clearly felt the sting from critics who decry his zeal for turning over regulatory functions to marketplace forces. In 1998, with the dot-com bubble in full bloom and radio consolidation in full swing, then-junior Commissioner Powell compared the idea of regulation in the public interest to modern art: “people see in it what they want to see. That may be a fine quality for art, but it is a bit of a problem when that quality exists in a legal standard.”
Yesterday, Powell changed his tune. Looking quite the part of a Mafia don, with a gaudy pinstripe suit and big-ass ring, he responded to his critics with the following (just so it’s clearly on the record – listen in MP3 format):
 “I can assure you we will be guided exclusively by the public interest and resist the pressure to view our exercise, as so often urged, as awarding benefits and burdens to corporate interests.” [:32, 252K]
That being said, Mikey Powell spent the Q-and-A portion of the hearing deflecting any questions concerning media ownership concentration. In one breath he would agree that Clear Channel’s dominance of the American radio landscape is troubling; in the next he would deftly avoid suggesting an actual solution to the problem.
What this example – and the entire hearing itself, really – demonstrated was that policymakers have no problem staging a debate so long as there’s no real intent to actually influence the process already in motion.
Even those few Senators who did raise concerns with the FCC’s media ownership proceedings did so mostly in the context of economics or tied it to the hot-button issue of indecency on the airwaves – with the exception of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Wyden actually tried to nail down each Commissioner on the media concentration issue, using the growth of Clear Channel as his rhetorical hammer, but it was pretty weakly executed.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) directly asked each Commissioner what changes they would make to the 1996 Telecommunications Act: none had any suggestions save increasing the FCC’s statutory authority to issue bigger fines against rulebreakers.
Most members of the Commerce Committee seemed worried about two specific things: the $2 trillion dollars lost in the crash of telecommunications and media stocks and the layoff of 500,000+ workers in the affected industries – in that order. Their overall level of engagement with FCC-related issues seemed pretty superficial – and these are the Senators most closely involved with overseeing the agency and its work?
Most FCC Commissioners followed Powell’s squirmy lead, although Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps did express some personal concerns about the media ownership question.
In general, though, the rhetoric was almost totally tied to corporations versus consumers (or the interaction of corporations with each other), and not much concern for democracy itself. (I must admit that Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy actually used the word “citizen” in her opening statement, but she may have misspoke.)
Anyway, here’s a few more choice utterances from the hearing – they are also in MP3 format:
Michael Copps opening statement: media concentration [1:10, 555K]                        “Suppose for a moment that the Commission votes to remove or significantly modify the [media] ownership limits. And suppose just for a moment that we made a mistake. How do you put that genie back into the bottle?”
I’ve emailed him with an offer to crash on my futon if he’s serious about holding more public hearings.
Michael Copps response to Sen. Ron Wyden’s question on media concentration[1:42, 99K]
“I am so committed to trying to energize and to spark a national debate. This should not be an inside-the-Beltway issue because it goes to the rights of every citizen of this country…There is nothing as important as this on our agenda.”
Jonathan Adelstein response to Sen. Ron Wyden [1:00, 477K]
Likens the state of radio to “the canary in the mine,” warning us of what may happen to other media outlets if they are subjected to consolidation and cross-ownership.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Michael Powell discuss media concentration [2:06, 988K]
Best quote in the exchange comes from the Senator: “When you talk about the diversity of voices out there…are you talking about more voices by one ventriloquist?”
Paul Riismandel @ mediageek has recorded and encoded the 23-minute segment of the (3-hour) meeting that dealt most closely with media concentration concerns; you can download it here (also in MP3, 2.6 MB).