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TODAY

Saturday, December 15

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Airbags

In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minnow delivered "a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that has since become required reading for students of media studies. His words bear repeating:

"I have confidence in your health. But not in your product. I am here to uphold and protect the public interest. What do we mean by 'the public interest?' Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree.

"When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better.

"But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

In the 42 years since Minnow's address, the state of television, of the media, has undoubtedly worsened. The FCC, once staunch upholder of the public interest, has conspired with media conglomerates, putting public spectrum space into the hands of a select corporate oligarchy.

Mere months ago, despite a massive public outcry that crossed political and social divides, the FCC relaxed already liberal media ownership regulations. Companies like News Corporation (Fox) and Viacom were on the verge of unparalleled control over what the public sees, hears, and reads.

I did my bit. Phone calls were placed to Senators Durbin and Fitzgerald and letters sent to Representative Schakowski and FCC Chairman Micheal Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell). Of these, only Schakowski took the time to respond. Her letter was heartening:

"A free and open media is central to our democracy. It ensures representation of ideological, cultural and geographic diversity. I cannot overstate the importance of the FCC's review of media ownership rules in deciding whether the principles of the First Amendment will be embraced in every day reality, or only in theory. Clearly, this is the most important telecommunications issue of our time. Please be assured that I will do everything in my power to protect our constitutional rights."

Thanks to outspoken lawmakers of her ilk, the FCC was overruled. It was one of those rare instances where government did something right. I was slack-jawed with shock.

But there's a problem.

Though the FCC attempted to open the floodgates for Rupert Murdoch and similar moguls, it made an effort to curb -- albeit only slightly -- the beast that is ClearChannel.

When radio ownership regulations were radically eased in 1996, ClearChannel was given leave to own a greater number of stations in a given market than had ever been allowed before. Though grateful for this allowance, ClearChannel soon went about bending the law in an effort to expand even further. The FCC ruling took steps to close the loophole that made this possible.

ClearChannel, as one would expect, wasn't at all happy. Saying that the FCC "missed the mark by a mile," they felt somehow slighted. Indeed, compared to the windfall received by their television counterparts, they got the shaft.

A shaft handily removed thanks to congressional reprimand.

Media regulations still in a state of flux. The FCC will convene again in two years to reconsider the rules governing media ownership, and their relationship with the public interest.  Contact your Senators and Representatives, write to the FCC, and above all, vote.

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