The Federal Communications Commission will soon announce the location of the sixth and final public hearing on proposed changes in media ownership rules, and Jonathan Lawson of Reclaim the Media tells me that it will be Seattle. The hearing could take place as early as November, although the date won’t be confirmed until the announcement is official.
Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have previously held two unofficial hearings in Seattle, but this will be the first and only time all five FCC commissioners will attend a hearing in the Northwest. Previous hearings have been held in Los Angeles, Nashville, Harrisburg, Tampa and Chicago.
At stake are FCC rules placing limits on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets in a single market, and on how many TV and radio stations a single company can own. The FCC’s 2003 attempt to weaken our already lax ownership rules created a huge public and political outcry, and might have been blocked by Congress had Republican House Speaker Denny Hastert allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. Ultimately, the Third Circuit Court sent it back to the FCC for further deliberation and public hearings. So far, public testimony has overwhelmingly supported maintaining or strengthening rules limiting media concentration.
There aren’t a lot of hot-button issues on which I find myself enthusiastically allied with the likes of John Carlson and Frank Blethen, but I can think of few trends that more threaten the health of our democracy than the ever growing concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few corporations. Media ownership concentration doesn’t just lead to a loss of localism and a decline in the quality and diversity of content, it also directly and indirectly undermines the ability of the press to serve its crucial democratic role as a watchdog of our institutions, both public and private. There is no democracy without a free press, and there is no truly free press in an industry where the only sure path to promotion is to echo the political leanings of your corporatist masters.
It is the inherent inability of anybody to own the blogosphere that makes it so exciting and vital, but do not kid yourself that this revolution in citizen journalism is anywhere close to challenging the corporate media for audience or influence, or that the corporations who own the networks willingly provide us unfettered access to the mass market of content consumers. It is also important to remember that as online consumers increasingly come to expect and demand streaming video and other bandwidth-intensive content, the growing cost of producing and serving this content will require not-insubstantial sums of capital investment if we are to truly compete for audience share. There is plenty of room for individuals and small companies to innovate, but in an environment that allows unlimited ownership consolidation, the traditional venture capital infrastructure that fueled our region’s high-tech boom is not well suited toward the goal of building a robust and independent new media. As evidenced by today’s acquisition of Newsvine by MSNBC, when profit is the only motive of investors, and ownership concentration knows no bounds, the media conglomerates will simply fatten their portfolio and strengthen their market control by purchasing those few public and venture-backed corporations that manage to gain a competitive edge.
There may yet come a day when the Internet is nothing but a content-neutral utility through which nearly all media is distributed, thus making corporate ownership of our airwaves, and even cable, irrelevant. But the growing power and influence of our media conglomerates makes that day a dim and distant vision.