FIVE months into his term, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has arrived at a critical juncture. The proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger, a court’s rejection of the FCC’s net-neutrality rules and the looming deadline for the commission’s media-ownership review provide an opportunity for Wheeler and the commission to begin reshaping our media landscape.
That landscape, now dominated by a few large players, needs to reflect the dynamism and vibrancy of our nation’s diverse multitudes.
Here are some ideas on how the FCC should proceed:
• Say no to the outrageous Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal. We need more competition, not less, in the cable and broadband industries. This merger isn’t the way to deliver it.
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• Answer the U.S. Court of Appeals decision that struck down its open Internet, aka net neutrality, rules with a set of new rules that guarantee it — this time in a way that will pass muster in the courts.
• Resist pressures to leave loopholes open and further relax media-ownership rules. If it permits a few billionaire moguls to monopolize the airwaves, the commission will do the nation a tremendous disservice.
• Take a hard, new look at what is keeping African-American, Hispanic and other minority entrepreneurs and women out of broadcasting and what help is needed for media to better reflect the diversity of the country.
Rejecting the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would set a tone for a new FCC. When Republican chairmen Michael Powell and then Kevin Martin sought to relax consolidation rules in the 2000s, millions of Americans howled in protest and the courts struck their efforts down as insufficiently fact-based.
Their Democratic successor, Julius Genachowski, was headed down a similar road until public opposition put the brakes on further loosening of the rules. There is talk that Wheeler may try to shepherd in Genachowski-lite rules. Such a foolhardy step would surely provoke political and grass roots backlash. It must not happen.
Under Wheeler’s leadership, the FCC has made encouraging moves to promote diverse and local media ownership. Wheeler had also indicated he would try to protect broadband consumers with new open Internet rules.
Instead, the FCC announced this week it wants to further degrade consumer protections by explicitly condoning net-neutrality violations. The draft proposal, which was distributed to commissioners, represents a gigantic step backward.
Such half-measures would likely be doomed in the courts, as previous versions were. In January, a federal Court of Appeals struck down the weak Genachowski-era rules as unlawfully constructed. In so doing, it gave the FCC a clear path forward to guarantee innovation and free expression online. The commission’s Thursday proposal would not do that.
It’s time for the FCC to guarantee strong open Internet protections for broadband customers once and for all, even if doing so raises the ire of Congressional Republicans or industry players.
Millions of Americans already have spoken out for Internet freedom and against further media consolidation. In an election year, policymakers in Washington should heed the call for strong public interest leadership.
The commission has made an important turnaround on one media ownership issue. It voted in March to begin closing legal loopholes that broadcasters have used to consolidate media outlets while maintaining a facade of independence.
Joint-sales agreements and shared-services agreements allow broadcasters to combine newsrooms, lay off reporters and air duplicate newscasts on multiple channels in the name of operational efficiency — effectively permitting one broadcaster with one editorial viewpoint to control many stations. In reality, one station can control another without technically owning it. That’s wrong.
Homogenized news undermines local democracy. With fewer reporters at fewer distinct outlets there is less original reporting and less competition. Civic engagement requires journalistic diversity and competition, a true marketplace of ideas. Shamefully, the FCC under previous leadership approved scores of these deals.
With this commission’s action, joint-sales agreements now count toward local ownership limits, and the agency is studying whether shared-services agreements should as well. Separately, the commission has decided to keep current media ownership rules in place during the quadrennial review.
The review is congressionally mandated. The last one was long delayed by controversy over whether Chairman Genachowski would use it as a vehicle to do away with long-standing media diversity rules.
By any reasonable standard, shared-services agreements should count against media ownership limits. That would force broadcasters to end their shell games and open a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurial new ownership, which broadcasting so desperately needs.
Barely a handful of television stations are owned by minorities or women. In a nation as diverse as ours, that is a disgrace. Diverse, local ownership would mean more newsrooms more likely to tell the story of the entire community.
The FCC needs to start by collecting basic data about minority media ownership. Based on that analysis, it should redefine what constitutes a “small, disadvantaged business” so that these companies can qualify for congressionally approved economic assistance. With the right help, we might yet have media that better reflect the people they serve.
Once it better understands barriers to full participation in our media and telecommunications landscape, the FCC can apply those lessons to its other policymaking.
The commission will soon embark on a tremendously complex set of auctions that will transfer control of portions of the airwaves from broadcasters to cellular providers to facilitate next-generation wireless connectivity.
The wireless market, dominated by four companies, is also ripe for disruption.
With so many issues currently contending for the commission’s attention, it is imperative that the citizenry not get left behind. Inaction — or worse, bad policy decisions — would not just empower a handful of telecommunications monopolists, it would hinder a diverse informational ecosystem.
Michael J. Copps was a Federal Communications Commissioner from 2001 to 2011 and currently heads the Media & Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C.