BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. And to some stories of how regular Americans have decided that if democracy is going to be rescued from the powers-that-be, they will have to do it. We begin with big media, our favorite beat for years now. There's a new twist this week. Despite overwhelming public opposition from across the country and the political spectrum, the Chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin, isn't letting up in his relentless push to allow a handful of media giants swallow up more of your local media. He made it official on Tuesday: He intends to lift the longstanding ban that keeps one company from owning both the daily newspaper and a radio or television station in the same market. For ten days this has been a fast-moving story and we have a quick update from our media team, producer Peter Meryash and correspondent Rick Karr.
RICK KARR: Last week on Capitol Hill, members of Congress sent a sharp message to the FCC: Maine Republican Olympia Snowe was among the Senators who said, "No more media consolidation."
OLYMPIA SNOWE: It seems like "Here we go again" in this pursuit of easing up on these restrictions and regulations regarding the consolidation of corporate ownership of media, and I think that is truly disturbing.
RICK KARR: North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan said the FCC was rushing to grant media conglomerates' wishes.
BYRON DORGAN: One of the concerns I have, and a significant one is there will be, it appears to me, perhaps a month maximum for the American people to weigh in on a new rule that will be proposed for a final action on December 18th. That doesn't meet any test of reasonableness or any standard that I know that makes any sense.
RICK KARR: But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin ignored the Senators' concerns. The very next day in Seattle he convened the Commissions last public hearing on media ownership — a meeting he'd called on just one week's notice. And that put the hundreds of people who'd shown up for the hearing in a foul mood.
KEVIN MARTIN: You're asking 'why the rush and why no notice?' Let me respond. Throughout this process, I've been as transparent as I could be.
RICK KARR: But members of the audience weren't buying Martin's explanation because whatever the process had been, he'd given them only seven days' notice for the hearing.
KEVIN MARTIN: No, I'm not quite done. And I'll sit down in a second and you'll have your chance.
RICK KARR: Throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour hearing, members of the crowd slammed Martin for not giving the public enough time to weigh in. JIM BOWMAN: I would like to thank the FCC, and Kevin Martin, you in particular, for coming to Seattle on such short notice.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: Running this hearing with five days notice and then trying to jam media consolidation through by mid-December to me is damning evidence of the total abuse of the process itself that you're up to some kind of no-good. If this is a legitimate issue, then it deserves and demands a legitimate public process to determine the outcome. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for not respecting the democracy you live in.
RICK KARR: Other speakers said they're angry because they think Big Media is already too big — and shouldn't get any bigger.
SUSAN MCCABE: We told you a year ago, when you came to Seattle, that media consolidation is a patently bad idea, no ifs ands or buts about it. So with all due respect, I ask you: What part of that didn't you understand? Do you think that another year of listening to the same homogenized, formulaic, mindless crap that passes for news and entertainment on the commercial dial has suddenly caused us to say, "Please, I'd like a little more of that."
ROBERTO: I think I heard them justifying, encouraging you all to monopolize the media even more than it already is. I mean, have I died and gone to Hell, or what?
KING COUNTY COUNCILMAN REAGAN DUNN (R): I'm a Republican and I'm a capitalist, but some areas of our private sector must be regulated. Freedom of information is too important. We must be proactive in protecting that fundamental freedom.
RICK KARR: But the FCC's failed to protect the public's fundamental freedoms, said Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps.
MICHAEL COPPS: Did you ever notice that the FCC is always ready to run the fast break for big media, but it's always the four-corner stall when it comes to serving the public interest?
RICK KARR: The FCC's other Democrat, Jonathan Adelstein, warned the audience that the Commission's Republican majority wasn't really interested in listening to the public.
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Unfortunately, judging from the way this hearing was arranged, it looks like the media conglomerates' agenda is far ahead of yours at the FCC. Now, if you see a proposal for more consolidation made quickly after this final hearing. You'll know your input was dismissed.
RICK KARR: And, in fact, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced his proposal for more consolidation as soon as he was back at work in Washington, D.C. after the long weekend.
In a NEW YORK TIMES op-ed article on Tuesday of this week, he argued that "newspapers ... are struggling financially" ... and "will ... wither and die" unless they're allowed to get into the broadcasting business. So he wants to allow "[a] company that owns a newspaper in one of the [twenty] largest cities in the country" ... to "purchase a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market". That could affect the newspapers and radio and TV stations that nearly HALF of all Americans depend on for information - in places from New York and Los Angeles to Orlando and Cleveland and sixteen other cities — including ,where just last week at the FCC hearing, members of the public made it clear that they've had enough.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: If you will not stand up for we the people, then I have news for you. We the people are standing up for ourselves. This is our media, and we are taking it back.
BILL MOYERS: The story's not over, and we'll be returning to it. But keep these points in mind for now.
First, the claim that newspapers are in dire financial straights depends on your definition of dire. The average profit margin for publicly-traded newspaper firms last year was 17-18% - that's higher than the average Fortune 500.
Second, Chairman Martin says his new rules would just affect the 20 big markets. Not so. A giant loophole buried in the fine print could open the back door to runaway consolidation in nearly every market, large and small.
Third, it's the FCC's charge to ensure 'competition, localism and diversity' in media. These new rules fail on all three accounts. The FCC's own data shows that markets with cross-owned outlets provide less news as a whole. And when it comes to diversity, these new rules will make a disgraceful situation even worse. The very few commercial TV stations owned by people of color — hardly 3% of the total — will be in the crosshairs of the media giants.
Fourth, who do these guys work for, anyway? As you will see on our Web site at PBS.org, one FCC commissioner after another has gone to work in the media world. How can you serve the public when in the back of your mind you think that one day Rupert Murdoch may have a big job for you?
Remember Michael Powell? He was the last FCC chairman who wanted to let big media have all it can eat. Powell is now in the pay of "the world's leading private equity firm focused on media, entertainment, communications and information investments."
Finally, whatever your position on this, you have until December 11th -December 11th - to let the FCC, Congress, and the White House know what you think; that's when the FCC's public comment period closes. Check it out on our Web site.