Tuesday morning -- just three days after 1,000 people crowded into Seattle Town Hall to tell Kevin Martin's Federal Communications Commission not to allow further media consolidation -- the FCC Chairman released proposed rule changes that would allow one company to own a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market.
Martin is pushing this massive giveaway to Big Media even though the overwhelming majority of the public -- at six official public hearings and in hundreds of thousands of comments filed with the FCC -- has told him:
1. The media are not serving local communities.
2. He should not allow the largest media companies to get even bigger.
This is not just a slap in the face of the thousands of people who have testified and sent letters to Chairman Martin, but also a snub of Congress who has been calling on him to slow down and address outstanding concerns about the impact of more media consolidation on minority ownership and localism.
The day before the Seattle hearing, a bipartisan group of senators -- led by Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and including presidential candidates Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) -- introduced new legislation that would slow down Martin's timeline and ensure that the FCC follows its mandate to protect the public interest.
The proposed rule change was accompanied by an op-ed from Chairman Martin in the New York Times claiming that the new rules are designed to save a struggling newspaper industry. Oh, the poor, poor newspaper industry.
They have fallen from average profit margins of 30 percent to around 20 percent today -- still dramatically higher than the vast majority of other industries. Martin's rationale is the best bluff he can offer up while he does the bidding of media giants like Tribune Company and its would-be owner Sam Zell. Martin knows that if Tribune fails to secure cross-ownership waivers or a rule change by Jan. 1, the purchase price would go up at an annual rate of 8 percent.
The U.S. media is a complete mess -- and it doesn't represent the vast majority of Americans. Women and people of color -- who comprise two-thirds of the population -- own only about one-sixth of commercial radio and TV stations.
Martin's proposal doesn't merely ignore this; it would allow the situation to get even worse. He hopes to quell critics' concerns by only relaxing the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban in the only top 20 markets, and by only letting newspapers combine with broadcast stations outside of the four top-rated channels.
Problem is that one-third of the stations owned by people of color are in the top 20 markets and none of those are the top four stations. That puts the few minority-owned stations directly in the cross-hairs of consolidation.
The entire process leading to Tuesday's announcement has been a study in government corruption 101. Biased research, flawed data and unfair timelines from the FCC have consistently pushed the public out of the policymaking process and ignored citizens' impassioned pleas against further media consolidation.
But Martin's proposal represents a particularly nefarious strategic turn. While his press release notes reassuringly that the rule change would be limited to the top 20 media markets, the fine print of the rule change reveals a dangerous loophole that could open the back door to runaway media consolidation in nearly every market. It would allow cross-ownership in smaller markets -- perhaps hundreds of them -- if stations could show such a combination meets a series of ill-defined standards.
In the end, Kevin Martin is yet another Bush appointee attempting to dish out yet another handout for Wall Street on the backs of Main Street. Fortunately, the StopBigMedia.com Coalition -- hundreds of groups from across the political spectrum -- are circling the wagons and readying for a fight.