Statement of Common Cause President Chellie Pingree at low-power FM press conference
I’d like to congratulate my colleagues who have worked so hard to make low-power FM radio a reality. It’s one of the important ways that media reformers have ensured that Americans have some access to diverse points of view, as well as the means to make sure their voice are heard. The low-power FM campaign is an important part of a larger movement for media reform. This past year a range of groups representing over 20 million Americans came together to form the Media and Democracy Coalition. The coalition includes diverse communities such as labor, the religious community, consumer groups, civil rights organizations, and public interest groups like Common Cause. To focus our reform efforts, the coalition has launched the “Media Bill of Rights.” Already organizations representing more than 20 million people have signed onto the bill, and I encourage anyone listening to sign on, you can do so at the coalition website at www.citizensmediarights.org.
This campaign and the work of the Media and Democracy Coalition are more important than ever. In recent years, massive and unprecedented corporate consolidation of media ownership has dangerously contracted the number of voices in our nation’s media. While some argue we live in an age of unprecedented diversity in media, the reality is that the vast majority of America’s news and entertainment is now commercially-produced, delivered, and controlled by a handful of giant media conglomerates seeking to minimize competition and maximize corporate profits, rather than maximize competition and promote the public interest. In the next several months those of us working to promote a rich and democratic media will have several challenges in front of us and I hope you will all join us in our work. What are the challenges facing us at this moment?
Public broadcasting is under attack. The chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, has taken steps that are clearly designed to politicize National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). By making partisan hires at CPB, secretly monitoring journalists and seeking to influence programming decisions by manipulating the purse strings, the CPB board has failed in its mission under the Public Broadcasting Act to behave as a “firewall” to protect NPR and PBS from outside political influences. It’s ironic that CPB itself is the source of political influence when they were put in place to protect the editorial independence of both NPR and PBS. In a commercially dominated environment where news is increasingly turning into entertainment with pundits battling extreme view with few facts for listeners, we need the independence and integrity of public broadcasting more that ever.
In 1996, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, the public got few benefits. Deregulation of radio is a perfect example. As Clear Channel went from owning 40 to 1,200 stations, quality suffered and local programming shrank. It’s no wonder NPR’s audience has grown by over 41 percent in the last four years. The same forces that supported the Telecomm Act of 1996 will be lobbying again to deregulate when Congress revisits that Act soon. And we will work to ensure that the public has a seat at the table, and that our demands are heard.
The digital transition is looming and we know we will watch broadcasters lobby to get the most from the publicly owned digital spectrum. We must convince Congress to insist that some of the analog spectrum that broadcasters must return be set aside for public use, such as community wireless services provided at the local level and not sold to the highest bidder. Broadcasters much agree to serve the public interest on the expanded digital spectrum by providing news and information the public needs to participate in our democracy, and that means local news and substantive coverage of public affairs.
A Philadelphia court has sent the controversial media ownership rules that would have enabled big media to get even bigger back to the Federal Communications Commission. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the architect of those rule changes, has stepped down. We have a new chairman, Kevin Martin and expect a few new appointments. It’s not clear how the FCC will address the media ownership rules, but we need to work to ensure the process is transparent and accountable to the public, unlike when Powell held a single public hearing in Richmond, Virginia, on his proposed rules changes.
We at Common Cause and the rest of our coalition partners understand that it information is the lifeblood of democracy, and that we can’t have a handful of corporate conglomerates controlling what we see, hear, and read. The Media and Democracy Coalition will watch this process carefully, we will also work to encourage Congress to pass legislation that promotes diversity and competition in media ownership.