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REWRITING THE RULES

Reflecting on Media Ownership Debate

On the eve of their vote, four FCC commissioners speak about the meaning of their task.

June 02, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A yearlong political battle to restructure the nation's media industries culminates this morning with a vote at the Federal Communications Commission that is expected to substantially deregulate the broadcasting sector.

On the eve of what many view as the agency's most important decision in years, the Los Angeles Times asked all five commissioners to reflect on the significance of their task, the fairness of the process and what lessons they learned. Four responded, but the commission's chairman, Republican Michael K. Powell, declined to be interviewed.

Though the four generally agreed on the importance of the media ownership debate, the commissioners differed strongly on whether they thought the proceeding was inclusive enough, whether courts would uphold their final decisions and whether the public would benefit from the reforms.

As they wind down from an exhaustive proceeding -- which drew hundreds of thousands of public comments and an avalanche of industry lobbying -- a majority also agreed that Congress should change the statute that requires the FCC to undertake such a comprehensive review every two years.

Some of their comments:

Question: How important is Monday's vote?

Kathleen Q. Abernathy (Republican): There's been a lot of hype. If you look at other decisions we've faced, such as facilitating new broadband wireless devices, that's probably a bigger deal. But in terms of what consumers care about, this is major. It's been hyped up that we're going to hand over the reins of the media to one or two hypothetical media moguls. That's not going to happen. But until the proposal is out, there's going to be that fear.

Jonathan S. Adelstein (Democrat): This is the biggest change in American broadcast media rules in the history of the country.

Michael J. Copps (Democrat): It's the most important we've taken in years. It goes to the heart of everything we see and hear in the media.

Kevin J. Martin (Republican): It's one of the most important things that the commission will vote on this year, maybe longer.

Q: This is not the first time the FCC has tried to update media ownership rules. Previous attempts have failed. How hard was the fight behind the scenes, and what was the key to getting it done amid so much opposition?

Abernathy: I didn't anticipate how much concern would be raised over this. It's difficult. You're balancing core values of free speech. It helped that we were a new commission. When I came in, I immediately saw that the rules were internally inconsistent. And because we were all new, we were willing to step back and look at the rules anew and take them on.

The other reason is we were required by statute to do so. And when you have a number of recent court losses [in which the FCC's media rules were remanded or thrown out] you don't have the luxury of saying this is too hard. You have to respond.

Copps: I've been out on the road, doing 12 or 13 public hearings around the country. I think we've been successful in taking this issue to the American people despite the fact that there were folks out there who didn't want us to.

But it's still a pretty horrid outcome. The new numbers are significantly different. But at the same time it may be marginally less horrid than it would have otherwise been last fall when it appeared they wanted to totally eliminate the rules. That was my greatest fear. I attribute that to the outpouring of concern that we have seen.

Q: Was it a fair and open process?

Abernathy: Absolutely. There has not been any group I haven't listened to. And as a result, the item has changed over time. We had to rely a lot on the input we were getting from consumers, consumer interest groups and Capitol Hill.

Adelstein: I would have preferred if we had been given another month. We would have been able to do better work. But more importantly, I wish we could have given the public the opportunity to comment on this.

Copps: I'm not entirely happy with the process. We were really not acting in the spirit of notice and comment. A regulatory agency dealing with something this important should have put the text of the rules out there for the American people to see. All we wanted was a little more time. That's not unreasonable. The refusal on the part of others to support more public hearings and participate was not good process either. It's a tragedy in my eyes.

Q: Will the fighting on this issue leave any lingering feelings of hurt or distrust?

Abernathy: I hope not. There are many sides to this debate. So it doesn't surprise me that some of my colleagues landed in a different place.

Adelstein: I don't sense any loss of trust or bad feelings. People have strong policy feelings, but it's not personal.

Copps: No one is glowering at anyone else. It's a friendly group of people, even if we have differing views.

Martin: I don't know. You'd have to ask some of the other participants. I try to deal with the issues.

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