As an issue, corporate media consolidation is important and interesting. As the subject of a seven-hour hearing before the Federal Communications Commission — eh, not so much. Thus it was with some trepidation that I headed to Portland, Maine, Thursday for the latest in a series of FCC hearings on local content in the broadcast media.
The hearings have their roots in a 2003 ruling by the FCC — then chaired by the deregulation-obsessed Michael Powell — to remove what few restraints on media ownership were still in effect. The most significant changes Powell wanted to make would have allowed a single corporation to own television stations reaching 45 percent of the national market, up from 35 percent; and permitted a company to own a daily newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market, an arrangement known as “cross-ownership.”
To the amazement of long-embattled media reformers, Powell’s proposal sparked a public outcry, and the scheme was stopped dead in its tracks by both Congress and the courts. (Actually, the national-audience cap was raised to 39 percent, which just happened to coincide with the reach of Rupert Murdoch’s television stations.) The localism hearings — one of a series of six — are intended as an information-gathering exercise before the FCC considers ownership regulations once again.
Thursday’s hearing, attended by several hundred people in the Portland High School auditorium, was a gargantuan exercise in public discussion. The commissioners spoke. Politicians or their stand-ins spoke. There was a 12-member afternoon panel and an 11-member evening panel. Anyone who wished could sign up to deliver a two-minute statement; the list had reached 142 the last time I looked. Gregory Kesich’s account in the Portland Press Herald hits the highlights, which is as good as you can expect in covering such an unwieldy event.
The star, at least before the commissioners went into listening mode, was commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. The FCC consists of five members, and by law there must be three from one political party and two from the other. Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, didn’t attend — his newborn baby is in the hospital. Filling in was Michael Copps, a Democrat and a reform advocate. But Copps lacks the theatrical flair of his fellow Democrat, Adelstein, the only commissioner to rise from his seat and take the podium to deliver his opening statement. (The two Republicans who were on hand, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell, kept a low profile. The latter won a round of applause when he said he’d keep his remarks brief.)
“It’s all about you,” Adelstein began, none too promisingly. But ears perked up when he thanked Common Cause and Free Press — two liberal reform groups — for getting the word out about the hearing. Obviously this was someone whom the low-power FM advocates, public-access volunteers, and other grassroots types could embrace. Next Adelstein launched into the bureaucratic equivalent of a singalong, asking, “How well are the broadcasters serving you in your communities?”
“Horribly!” someone shouted back. “Horribly!” echoed another voice. Very well!” said another.
The industry representatives who were on hand suddenly realized what was happening. “Well!” someone said. “
Adelstein also did not fail to throw some red meat — uh, make that grayish soy curd — to the folks on his side. “The problem in recent years is that breaking news has been replaced with breaking gossip,” he said. (Clap, clap, clap.) “Quite frankly, the FCC has failed to protect the interests of the American people.” (Clap, clap, clap.) He closed by saying he thought the FCC should hold more than six hearings. As he sat down, a few cries of “Thank you!” went up from around the auditorium.
Like most media markets, Portland — and Maine as a whole — is now mainly served by large, out-of-state media conglomerates. As Greg Kesich notes, Portland’s three network-television affiliates are owned by chains, and the Press Herald itself (as well as several other Maine newspapers), though privately held, is controlled by the parent company of the Seattle Times. Out-of-state radio companies control most of the radio stations as well.
The industry folks who took part in the hearing addressed this in several ways — by stressing the amount of local coverage their TV and radio stations offer; by soliciting testimonials about how cooperative they are in covering such local stories as severe storms, disasters and health risks; and by gushing, endlessly, about their devotion to charity.
Let me deal with the last point first, because, after a while, it started to give me a queasy feeling. Surely the next-to-last refuge of a scoundrel, after patriotism, is to boast about your charitable endeavors. Think of how loudly Don Imus beat the charity drum when he was trying to salvage his career.
Well, there was plenty of that last night. One industry executive waxed enthusiastically that broadcasters have “a public-service gene.” Cary Pahigian, president and general manager of Saga Communications‘ Portland Radio Group, whose past includes running a hate radio station on Cape Cod for the late car dealer extraordinaire Ernie Boch, added, “We’re here to contribute to the community at all times.”
The bottom was reached when a woman from the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, speaking from the floor, told the commissioners about 9-year-old Joshua, described as a cancer patient, who supposedly said the local broadcasters’ charitable efforts were invaluable “because there are kids here and they want to go home.”
Thus was a seriously ill young boy drafted into the cause of preserving Big Media. A later speaker got it exactly right when he called the constant references to charity “distasteful” — a demonstration of “a complete lack of humility … not in touch with the humble folks of this state.”
Also speaking up was a veritable parade of law-enforcement officials, public-health advocates and meteorologists to attest to how responsive broadcasters are to their needs. Well, gee. All you have to do is flip on any local newscast to see that news directors like nothing better than disasters, severe weather and health threats. It’s local politics and investigative reporting that get short shrift.
Back in 2004, an internal FCC study quite clearly showed that media concentration harmed local coverage. The study was buried until someone leaked it to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
“Profitability can no longer be considered the sole criterion of a healthy media industry,” said one of Thursday’s panelists, University of Southern Maine professor Daniel Panici, blasting a media system that treats the public as “consumers” rather than “citizens.”
Another academic, University of Pennsylvania Law School professor C. Edwin Baker, made a great point about why the value of journalism frequently cannot be measured in economic terms — investigative reporting helps non-viewers and non-readers just as much as it does viewers and readers. But you won’t find many TV news executives who’ll play an examination into the causes of homelessness over some fear-mongering about a medium-size storm.
Indeed, a homeless advocate spoke up Thursday about a Portland radio station that, she said, had played a bit urging listeners to “Be evil! Go beat up a homeless person!” As it turned out, she said, the routine hadn’t even been recorded in Maine. Her point: If the station had a local owner, station executives would have thought twice about airing such degrading material.
To be sure, there is a certain whiff of New Deal/Great Society social engineering when it comes to talking about media regulation. The First Amendment doesn’t allow for regulation of newspapers, magazines or books. Over-the-air television and radio are regulated because of the “scarcity rationale” — that is, because stations make use of the limited broadcast spectrum, it’s reasonable for the government to regulate those stations in the public interest.
The scarcity rationale should whither and die over time, as the next-generation wireless, ubiquitous Internet creates a theoretically limitless video and audio universe. (Indeed, newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, barred from owning television stations in their markets, are nevertheless running extensive news video reports on their Web sites. The ban on cross-ownership, it appears, will eventually take care of itself.)
In Portland, several cheers went up for the idea of restoring the Fairness Doctrine, an old FCC rule mandating even-handedness that would give right-wing talk-radio hosts fits. In reality, though, there’s little support for such a measure: Also on Thursday, the U.S. House overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, with Democrats nearly as opposed to it as Republicans.
It’s a changing time for the news business, and even the giant media corporations that came under so much attack Thursday are struggling. Which is why I’ll close with the most interesting people I met — Gary Graham and J.P. Tremblay, two-thirds of a young trio that has been traveling the country since June 2006 to make a documentary titled “News for Sale.”
Graham and Tremblay were set up in a hallway doing interviews; the third member of the triumvirate, Dan Cantagallo, was inside the auditorium. The Brooklyn-based filmmakers (Graham is originally from New Mexico, Tremblay from Montreal and Cantagallo from Philadelphia) are putting together a 90-minute film that should be finished by December. They plan to enter it in film festivals and, they hope, win some awards. After that, who knows?
The crew has traveled to Los Angeles, Nashville, Harrisburg, Tampa, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Syracuse, usually to cover FCC hearings, sometimes to do independent reporting — such as on the meltdown of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Graham told me he was inspired by the older reporters who chose to take early retirement so their younger colleagues could keep their jobs — as well as by their stories of traveling to such places as Africa and Iraq. “This was the golden age of journalism. We’ll never know that again,” Graham said.
Graham also said he has a scoop — an important national story that a Web site has been covering, and that has yet to break in to the mainstream media. I pushed him — what’s the story? what’s the Web site? — but he wouldn’t budge. I guess we’ll have to find out in December.
The hearing was supposed to end at 11 p.m. But by 10:30, there was still a long list of speakers; Graham and Yolanda Hippensteele of Free Press told me the commissioners were likely to keep going until every speaker had been heard. One speaker instructed the commissioners that they had to try an Italian sandwich while they were in Portland, lobster rolls apparently being something that only tourists eat. (Now he tells me.) Another went off about “RNC talking points” and Frank Luntz, which showed, if nothing else, that he reads Media Matters.
That was my signal. It was time to head home.