Chairman Powell’s Problem

by Peter Maybarduk

Media companies are tenants on the airwaves—our public property. We’re the landlords, and the tenants aren’t paying any rent. If they did, we could pay for community media.
Michael Powell has a problem. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman, in championing what he saw as a bold rules change to keep the FCC relevant to today’s marketplace, instead inspired one of the greatest outpourings of spontaneous civic dissent in recent memory—almost entirely opposed to his plans. In four short months, at least 2.3 million citizens wrote to the FCC denouncing the agency’s June 2 resolution that would allow private conglomerates to own yet larger shares of the nation’s media markets.

The Federal Communications Commission, historically known to the average American only as an obscure government acronym, is charged to regulate the communications industry, from cell phones to satellite TV, in the public interest. Michael Powell has made his mission de-regulation. He is a wolf charged to shepherd.

When Mr. Powell declined to hold public hearings prior to the FCC vote, civic outcry spilled over onto Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives took a cue from constituents and voted 400-to-21 to repeal the FCC’s relaxation of ownership caps. The Senate Appropriations Committee followed suit, cutting the FCC’s moneys to implement its rule change. Citizen pressure never slowed down: a Center for Public Integrity study documented the FCC’s acceptance of paid trips and entertainment from the industry it is charged to regulate. A court action by the Prometheus Radio Project prompted the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to order a stay on the rules change until the Senate had a chance to evaluate the new laws. And public demonstrations featured the women’s peace group Code Pink presenting Mr. Powell with a “pink slip”—a gift of fashionable underwear offered in exchange for the Chairman’s resignation.

Mr. Powell’s problem is the public’s gain. Americans have a chance not only to overturn the new FCC rules, but to further apply the momentum and heightened public awareness flowing from this campaign to reconstitute media’s role in our democracy. We could begin to transform the relationship of citizens to the airwaves we together own.

As Ralph Nader points out, the public airwaves are a commons: every network news program, every lite rock station, every Limp Bizkit song and network beer commercial is broadcast to us via an asset in which we each own a share, yet over which we have no control. Media companies are tenants on our property. We’re the landlords, and the tenants aren’t paying any rent. If they did, we could pay for community media. Each town, no matter how tiny, could produce its own programming, broadcasting for part of each day the results of local sporting events and news from the City Council. We could help foster a renaissance of civic engagement and small-town America, connecting individuals to their communities instead of only to the distant stars of Hollywood.

And that is just the beginning. We could challenge anticompetitive mergers, consider a daytime ban on television content inappropriate for children, limit advertising minutes and require network coverage of relevant political or cultural events. We could enforce the public interest standards that broadcasting companies are already obligated to meet under the law. If companies do not meet our standards, we should not renew their broadcasting licenses.

Think of our airwaves as akin to our highway system: a public asset over which private assets are carried. Because every driver diminishes every other driver’s use of the highways, be it through traffic, wear, or accidents, we regulate our roads, enforce standards and ensure safety. If we did not, a great many more people would die driving each year than the 40,000 that already do. Similarly, our public airwaves require responsible oversight. Their abuse—through the exclusion of relevant political views, repetitively violent programming, or the preeminence of marketing over content—is as crippling for our democracy as reckless driving can be for each of us that uses America’s roads.

In order to navigate unprecedented public pressure on the FCC, Chairman Powell has had to rebuke critics, clarify arguments, backpedal, concede points and develop alternatives to his overarching plan to deregulate American media. In the last four months, Powell has announced an end to industry-financed trips, prepped the expedition of licenses to low-power radio operators, and assigned a “localism” task force to study the quantity and quality of local news broadcasts—a move Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy calls “throwing crumbs to the critics.”

Fundamentally, Michael Powell has not changed his view that technology gives consumers today so many choices through cable television and the internet that we need not worry about the growth of media corporations. But even in cable, five companies own 90 percent of the top 50 stations. And of course, the more powerful the company or association, the greater its ability to lobby and influence the Chairman of the FCC.

Simply because diverse opinions are available somewhere out there in the print and electronic media does not mean that they have access to equal resources through which to reach curious Americans. Even internet search engines, due to sponsorship agreements, rank sources in a discriminatory fashion.

Chairman Powell states that the media market is not concentrated in antitrust terms (the Consumers Union vehemently disagrees). But media concentration projects itself differently than does concentration in other markets. People gravitate towards common media sources so that they can effectively communicate about and share what they see and hear. It is important that the same company does not own every popular program or publication.

We are not talking widgets here. We are talking about what Americans know of the world in which we live. All of our decisions as a democracy flow from the information we receive via the airwaves. It’s a rather vital cog in our civic wheel that Mr. Powell is busy loosening.

On September 16 the Senate voted 55-40 to overturn the FCC rule change. The Bush White House indicated it would exercise its veto powers in this case. On December 1, the Senate, using the Congressional Review Act, began efforts to enact a resolution to repeal the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations.

If President Bush—who supports Powell’s position—decides to use his first veto to reinstate the FCC rules, America could still witness a wave of selling-off and buying-up media companies within the next year—and all the layoffs and programming-consolidation that will come with it.

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Peter Maybarduk is a civic organizer working at the Center for Study of Responsive Law in Washington, DC. He can be reached at

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This story was published on December 2, 2003.