What if I told you the Obama administration's first major post-election policy move was a big, fat gift for Rupert Murdoch?
You might ask: the same Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News?
The same Rupert Murdoch who scandalized England with phone-hacking, influence peddling and bribery?
The same Rupert Murdoch who stays up late Saturday nights pondering things on Twitter like what to do about "the Jewish-owned press"?
Murdoch already owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News Channel, Fox movie studios, 27 local TV stations and much, much more.
Word is that Murdoch now covets the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune -- the bankrupt-but-still-dominant newspapers (and websites) in the second- and third-largest media markets, where Murdoch already own TV stations.
Under current media ownership limits, he can't buy them. It's illegal... unless the Federal Communications Commission changes the rules.
But according to numerous reports, that's exactly what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski plans to do. He's circulating an order at the FCC to lift the longstanding ban on one company owning both daily newspapers and TV stations in any of the 20 largest media markets.
And he wants to wrap up this massive giveaway just in time for the holidays.
Democracy Diversity Disaster
If these changes go through, Murdoch could own the Los Angeles Times, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in L.A. alone. And he's not the only potential beneficiary: These changes could mean more channels for Comcast-NBC, more deals for Disney, and more stations for Sinclair.
For anyone who actually cares about media diversity and democracy, the gutting of media ownership limits will be a complete disaster.
These rules are one of the last barriers to local media monopolies. Without them, we will lose competing voices for local news. We will see the mainstream media get even more monotone, monochrome and monotonous.
The FCC's own data shows ownership of broadcast radio and television stations by women and minorities remains at abysmally low levels. Women own less than 7 percent of radio and TV stations; people of color control only 3.6 percent of TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations.
More media consolidation will push out smaller owners -- who are disproportionately women and people of color. The more concentrated local media get, the harder it will be for under-represented groups to compete.
That's why groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Center for Media Justice and National Hispanic Media Coalition have spoken out against of any further relaxation of ownership limits.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Genachowski's proposal is essentially indistinguishable from the failed Bush administration policies that millions rallied against in 2003 and 2007. Ninety-nine percent of the public comments received by the FCC opposed lifting these rules when the Republicans tried to do it.
Genachowski's proposal is nearly identical to the one the Senate voted to overturn with a bipartisan "resolution of disapproval" back in 2008. Among the senators who co-sponsored that rebuke to runaway media concentration were Joe Biden and Barack Obama.
At the time, Obama blasted the FCC for having "failed to further the goals of diversity in the media and promote localism," saying the agency was in "no position to justify allowing for increased consolidation." Nothing has changed -- except which party controls the White House.
The federal courts have repeatedly -- and as recently as 2011 -- struck down these same rules, noting the FCC's failure to "consider the effect of its rules on minority and female ownership." The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the FCC to study the impact of any rule changes before changing the rules. The FCC has done nothing of the kind.
When the Republicans were in power, they held at least seven public hearings on ownership rules in front of the full commission, where near-universal public opposition to these changes was evident.
Yet Genachowski himself has participated in zero public hearings on media ownership. Same goes for the two newest commissioners, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Ajit Pai. The senior Republican, Robert McDowell, did attend hearings... five years ago. Only Democrat Mignon Clyburn has attended a public hearing on media ownership during the Obama administration.
Yet if Genachowski gets his way, according to reports, the FCC will vote on this major overhaul "on circulation" -- that is, in secret and behind closed doors -- with no public participation or accountability. It's shameful.
Now You Do Something?
Genachowski's behavior is inexplicable because the clearest and easiest path on media ownership was to do nothing. After losing in court, he could have punted the issue and waited for the next review in 2014, when the diversity research could have been finished and the industry trends might have been clearer.
"Do nothing" is so ingrained at the FCC it could be the agency's motto. And yet the one time inaction is called for, Genachowski is making every effort to side with Murdoch against the masses.
We can still stop this terrible plan from moving forward. The other members of the FCC can dissent and send this thing back to the drawing board. The dozens of senators who voted against this very policy less than five years ago can speak up again. The Obama administration can think about cross-examining Rupert Murdoch instead of appeasing him.
None of that will happen unless millions of people out there make some noise.
We should be breaking up these giant media conglomerates, not bolstering them. But right now we need to kill this policy for good -- and remind the FCC that 99 percent of the public opposes media consolidation, no matter who's in the White House or the FCC chairman's seat.