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Expect more monopolies from new media rules

If you didn't hear much about the controversy over sweeping changes to the nation's media ownership rules, one reason might be that many of the corporations responsible for giving you that news had a vested interest in those changes. Some of the largest U.S. newspaper companies, including Gannett and the New York Times Company, along with television conglomerates including Fox parent News Corporation and Viacom (which owns CBS), had all long sought looser rules.

Despite scant media attention, the Federal Communications Commission received some 750,000 public comments, virtually all opposing the changes. Yet when the commissioners voted June 2, it was along strict, and predictable, party lines: The Republican majority prevailed 3-2, making it easier for a few big corporations to control print and broadcast sources of news and entertainment.

Among other changes, the new rules permit cross-ownership of newspapers and radio and TV stations in medium-sized and larger markets (including Pittsburgh) and significantly raise the caps on national network ownership of stations in local markets (companies can now own stations reaching 45 percent of U.S. households, up from 35 percent). The commission also declined to reinstate a rule blocking cable companies from owning local television stations.

While the changes will make it easier for companies based far away to own your local news outlets, FCC chairman Michael K. Powell said, "Our actions will advance our diversity and localism goals and maintain a vigorously competitive environment." The commission's two Dems dissented. "At issue," said Michael J. Copps, "is whether a few corporations will be ceded enhanced gatekeeper control over the civil dialogue of our country; more content control over our music, entertainment and information; and veto power over the majority of what our families watch, hear and read." And Jonathan Adelstein called the changes "the most dramatic weakening of our media ownership rules this country has ever seen."

Still, many in Congress immediately resolved to rescind some of the new rules, and it's not too late for discussion. So on June 23, Pittsburgh's fledgling public-forum series Homefront will tackle such issues with an evening themed "Media Monopoly."

The program will feature a 30-minute documentary titled Rich Media, Poor Democracy -- based on Robert McChesney's acclaimed 1999 book and narrated by McChesney and media scholar Mark Crispin Miller -- followed by a panel and audience discussion. Panelists include Duquesne University communications professor Rob Bellamy; WBGN-TV owner Ron Bruno; WPTT radio personality Lynn Cullen; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Pittsburgh) executive director John Haer; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman; and Fred Polner, an attorney who formerly worked with the FCC. The moderator will be media activist Jerry Starr of Pittsburgh Educational Television, and the show will be videotaped for broadcast on PCTV 21.

This is the second Homefront. The May forum on the war on Iraq drew about 65 people -- a pretty good start, Starr says. At the June 23 Homefront, he adds, "People should turn up to speak out as well as to learn."

And with more than 150 lawmakers (both Republicans and Democrats) asking the FCC to postpone final rule-making to allow more study, there's hope for rescinding at least the higher cap on national TV ownership.

Concerns about the new FCC rules are partly based on experience. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, for instance, was followed by a massive radio-industry consolidation in which the number of owners dropped by a third and one broadcaster, Clear Channel Communications, came to own more than 1,200 stations -- as many as the next three largest firms combined. "It's all an awful, awful trend," says Starr.

Homefront's "Media Monopoly" program starts at 7 p.m. June 23, at The Andy Warhol Museum, North Side. The show will air on PCTV from 9-11 p.m. on Saturdays in July.)

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