2012-11-20 08:05:00

FCC Abandons Diversity, Embraces Rupert Murdoch

Days before the election, President Obama told an Iowa newspaper that if he won a second term, he would owe his victory in large part to how the Republican Party had “alienated” Latino voters.

The president was right. But it wasn’t just Latino voters who made the difference for Obama in 2012; it was a coalition that included women, African Americans and young people that won it for the president — groups often marginalized by our nation’s political and media systems.

So it’s inexplicable that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski would choose to alienate these very same groups in what could be the first major policy decision of President Obama’s second term.

Genachowski is reportedly ready to adopt policies recycled from the Bush administration that would lift the long-standing ban on companies owning both newspapers and TV stations in the same market.

When the Bush FCC tried to eliminate the same rules in 2007, Democrats opposed the move and passed a Senate resolution to overturn the changes. Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, was a leading opponent of the Bush FCC’s efforts, saying the agency had “failed to further the goals of diversity in the media and promote localism” and was in “no position to justify allowing for increased consolidation.”

A federal court agreed, throwing out the rules in 2011 in response to a challenge from a coalition of public interest groups including Free Press and the Prometheus Radio Project. The court — which had rejected an earlier attempt to loosen the rules in 2005 — blasted the FCC for consistently failing “to consider the effect” of any policy changes on “minority” and female ownership.

The court instructed the FCC to investigate the impact of any future rule changes on media diversity before it pushed forward with any changes. But behind closed doors, Genachowski is now rushing to lift the cross-ownership ban in the biggest markets, while ignoring the Commission’s own data on the dreadful state of ownership diversity.

Last week, the FCC released new figures that showed that ownership of TV and radio stations by women and people of color remains abysmally low. People of color own just 3.6 percent of all full-power TV stations, and women own less than 7 percent.

If the changes Genachowski is seeking are approved, one company will be allowed to own the daily newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in the same market. These changes would disproportionately impact communities of color. In fact, nearly 40 percent of TV stations owned by people of color could be impacted by the FCC’s decision since they are located in the top-20 markets, which are the ones affected by this rule change.

The Center for Media Justice and the National Hispanic Media Coalition told the FCC that the FCC’s new ownership data “only demonstrates the dire need for the Commission to seriously consider proposals that would increase diversity rather than push forward a draft order that would … lead to more consolidation.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition made up of more than 200 organizations, also warned last week it would be a “grave disservice” to its members if the Commission attempted “to push through a change in media ownership rules at the last minute” without considering the impact on diversity of ownership.

But the chairman has ignored these requests, demonstrating clearly that he cares less about the public interest than pleasing corporate interests. And relaxing cross-ownership rules would do just that, helping no one but media moguls like Rupert Murdoch — the scandalized media baron who reportedly wants to buy the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, but can’t do it unless the current rules are scrapped.

Genachowski’s proposal comes at a time when even many Republicans are publicly lamenting the “shrill and divisive voices” coming from the “conservative entertainment complex,” to quote former McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt. If influential conservative figures are so concerned about the undue influence of conservative media, why is Genachowski doing special favors for Fox and friends?

Communities of color know all too well what it’s like to be demonized by right-wing media. Yet Genachowski has long ignored the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s call to study the relationship between hate speech on the public airwaves and hate crimes — even as hate crimes against Latinos have increased substantially in recent years.

When it comes to media ownership, Genachowski isn’t willing to take even the most basic — and court-mandated — steps to deal with increasing the diversity of voices using the public airwaves.

Worse still, Genachowski is pushing these disastrous changes without attending a single public hearing. If he gets his way, the FCC won't even vote on the changes in public. Powerful corporate lobbyists will know what’s in the rule changes the FCC is considering behind closed doors, but the public will be shut out until it’s already been decided.

Genachowski may not budge on this issue. But there might be hope for Mignon Clyburn, the first African-American woman commissioner, who has stressed the importance of diversity throughout her tenure. Jessica Rosenworcel, the other Democratic commissioner, was an adviser to former Commissioner Michael Copps, an outspoken opponent of media consolidation.

Will these commissioners — or their Republican colleagues — use their powerful positions to fight for polices that increase media equality and provide marginalized communities a greater opportunity to own broadcast outlets and speak for themselves?

Or will they side with Julius Genachowski and Rupert Murdoch to make things worse?

Free Press is a nonpartisan organization building a nationwide movement for media that serve the public interest. Joseph Torres is the group’s senior external affairs director.

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