Reportback from Seattle FCC Festivities

“Strategically optimistic” is the way Jonathan Lawson, an organizer with Reclaim the Media, feels coming out of Friday’s FCC media ownership field hearing with Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. The two certainly got an earful.
Reclaim the Media, along with many other groups, spent a lot of time and energy making the field hearing happen. Because it was not officially sanctioned by Chairman Michael Powell, the FCC wouldn’t release funds for the two Commissioners to travel. Copps paid his own way, presumably out of his own (limited) office expense funds; Reclaim the Media paid the freight for Adelstein.
Having originally scheduled only 30 minutes of time for public comment at the hearing, the Commissioners pledged not to cut off anyone who wanted to speak. They listened to more than three hours of public comment as a result. Not only that, but corporate media executives in the onstage discussion panels were openly jeered. Lawson says the overall sentiment was “overwhelmingly, if not totally opposed” to further relaxation of media ownership rules.
Between the official hearing itself, other panels and forums scheduled later in the afternoon, and an evening concert, at least 800 (and possibly as many as 1,000) people took part in debate on the issues. All were webcast by the Seattle Independent Media Center and broadcast live to the rest of Seattle on three FM frequencies. Reports indicate the 100-watt signal on 94.5 was cleanest and loudest; at least two other microradio stations around the country also relayed the IMC feed to their own communities.
Jonathan Lawson was lucky: he got to spend some quality time with Commissioner Adelstein at the IMC. Lawson says Adelstein is knowledgeable about independent and community media and understanding of concerns about further media consolidation. Of course, Copps and Adelstein, as the two Democrats on the five-member Commission, are the established opposition.
The key to preventing a wholesale rollback of ownership rules on media outlets, it would seem, lies with Commissioner Kevin Martin. He’s demonstrated his capacity to be a swing vote on big issues recently, nullifying Chairman Powell’s personally-authored rulemaking that would’ve allowed Baby Bell phone companies to charge unlimited rates to competitors for access to their (Ma Bell-era) lines.
Nobody’s quite sure where Martin stands on all six of the media ownership rules under review. He may like to see television network ownership caps remain in place but is thought to favor allowing more cross-ownership between media outlets. If Martin can be made to understand the magnitude of what’s at stake here, he may be able to significantly impede the market-religion disaster Chairman Powell wants to unleash.
For his part, Lawson feels a lot better about the strength of the media democracy movement after last Friday. “I don’t feel like it’s a done deal at all,” he said. In fact, it would seem, talk is changing from simply slowing the deregulatory juggernaut to “winning this thing.” The mood is decidedly different in Washington, where the hunt continues for the elusive economic “formula” that will magically preserve voice and viewpoint diversity in media markets under a more consolidated regime.
What happened in Seattle could’ve been even more powerful, but fear of reprisal kept some people from speaking out. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic was supposed to testify but cancelled, reportedly out of concern for what open criticism of media conglomerates would mean for radio and video airplay. He was not the only musician to do so.
Lawson believes that if public momentum – and opposition – stays loud and continues to grow at future FCC field hearings, the outlook can only get better. The next one will be held later this month at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina – Commissioner Kevin Martin’s home state, and one he will likely attend. More hearings are also in the works: sites for future dates include Chicago, Los Angeles, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.