Last stop before the media monopoly

FCC chairman Michael Powell is likely to get media ownership deregulated -- even though public comment is running 97 percent against it.


Last stop before the media monopoly

By all accounts Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell knew his crusade to eliminate decades’ worth of media ownership limits was going to be a bruising fight, both inside and outside the commission. The prospect of a rush toward more media consolidation raises all sorts of hot-button issues about the future of American media and the role news plays in a democratic society.

Powell now looks likely to emerge victorious, via a party-line 3-2 vote among FCC commissioners set for early June. But thanks to an avalanche of negative public feedback, surprisingly chilly reception from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and the unusually public spat that’s broken out internally at the FCC over the details of the final proceedings, the battle leading up to the vote — as opposed to the actual outcome — is emerging as a compelling Beltway drama in its own right.

Powell, often credited with being a silky-smooth operator, is having his political skills put to the test. And his push to change the rules has touched a sore nerve in a public already concerned about recent heavy consolidation in the radio industry.

Powell did win a key victory last week. A majority of members on the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce Committee, including conservatives such as Trent Lott, R-Miss., now oppose Powell’s move toward further media consolidation. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the committee, came to Powell’s rescue by refusing congressional requests that the chairman testify before it.

Powell’s refusal to debate the controversial agenda in public has some in Washington seething. On May 13 Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., a longtime critic of deregulation, issued an angry statement blasting the “shameful” way the FCC has handled revising the rules.

Opponents of further media deregulation believe that Powell made up his mind a long time ago that the rule changes — which media giants such as Viacom, News Corp. and the Tribune Co. have sought for years — need to be made, regardless of the opposition.

“The FCC could have acted in a way that made this more of a national debate on the merits, instead of keeping it under wraps,” says one Democratic Hill source whose boss is actively involved in the consolidation issue.

The perception of Powell as unwilling to listen to criticism has been reinforced by his decision to schedule only one public hearing on the historic rule changes (which led his fellow commissioners to stage a series of unsanctioned hearings). He also refused to testify before Congress about the issue, refused to make public the details of the rule changes that the FCC will be voting on next month, and broke with FCC tradition by snubbing a courtesy request from fellow commissioners to postpone a policy vote by 30 days.

Those last two acts brought a sharp, public rebuke from Democratic commissioner Michael Copps: “The Chairman’s decision not to make these proposals public, nor even to grant a short delay in voting, runs roughshod over the requests of the American people and the precedents of this Commission.”

Traditionally, those sorts of internal FCC squabbles have been handled behind closed doors, not via dueling press releases, notes Arthur Belendiuk, a veteran Washington communications lawyer who has been dealing with the FCC for decades. “You might fight with your wife, but you try to avoid doing it in a restaurant,” he says.

Admirers of Powell insist he’s done as good a job as can be expected with a topic as explosive as media ownership. “He’s navigated it well,” says Scott Cleland, a telecommunications analyst and the CEO of the Precursor Group, an investment research company. “It’s among the most political decisions the FCC has made in decades. Mother Theresa couldn’t have navigated it any more safely.” Cleland thinks Powell was wise to dismisses calls for a delay of the June 2 vote. “It’s a classic Washington move; if you know you’re going to lose, you delay. It would have just been 30 more days of pounding on the piñata.”

Ordinarily, deregulation opponents are often dismissed as simply voicing knee-jerk reactions to big-business initiatives. But that doesn’t explain why a majority of the Senate Commerce Committee stands opposed to Powell.

Enter Clear Channel. The 1996 Telecommunications Act singled out radio for sweeping ownership deregulation, paving the way for Clear Channel to expand from 40 stations to 1,225, approximately 970 stations more than its closest competitor had. In the process, the company revolutionized the radio business in ways most people think have been for the worse: massive layoffs, less news, less local control, and homogenized music playlists.

“The lesson of radio over the last seven years is a critical one for this debate, and we ignore it at great risk to the country,” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., wrote to Powell last week. “It will be a much harder task to turn back the clock if these new rules do to newspapers and television what the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has done to radio.”

Powell has not helped his case by embracing suspect rhetoric while trying to rationalize the rule changes. He told the Financial Times on April 30 that by not allowing for further media consolidation, “there is a real worry about the long-term survivability of free, over-the-air television,” adding, “I think there is a very easy way for it to collapse.” It was a startling statement — America’s four TV networks could collapse — that few outside News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and a handful of media-friendly Wall Street analysts have made public. Even CNN’s pro-business “Moneyline” host, Lou Dobbs, remarked on the air it was “just mind boggling that Michael Powell would say that they’re [in danger of] a collapse.” (Indeed, in a just-completed round of buys, the TV networks are expected to haul in $9 billion in advertising for next year’s primetime programming, up 13 percent from last year.)

The ill will between Powell and his consolidation opponents dates back to last year, when the chairman made it clear he was willing to have only one public meeting to hear from proponents and opponents. Determined to generate an actual debate, the two Democratic commissioners organized 10 unofficial forums across the country to hear from the people; Powell boycotted them. At the one FCC-sanctioned event held in late February, “Chairman Powell beat a hasty retreat when the hearings were officially adjourned in the late afternoon,” according to an account in TelevisionWeek, an industry trade journal.

Powell countered critics who complained the FCC process was not open enough by noting that the commission had received a record number of public comments regarding the ownership issue and that most of them were filed by private individuals. Usually of interest only to broadcasters and a handful of D.C. communications attorneys, the comment period for media ownership has attracted nearly 20,000 filings. “That’s a landslide in terms of comments,” says Belendiuk.

Powell agrees. “This record clearly demonstrates that in the digital age you don’t need a 19th century whistle-stop tour to hear from America,” said the chairman earlier this year, essentially dismissing the hearings organized by the Democratic commissioners as dog-and-pony road shows.

What Powell does not mention, though, is what people are saying in their FCC filings. “The statistics on public comments are just off the charts,” says Robert McChesney, coauthor of “Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media.” “More people want Osama bin Laden up on Mt. Rushmore than want the media companies to consolidate.”

A recent examination of 9,360 comments available on the FCC’s Web site found 97 percent opposed to further deregulation. After weeding out meticulous position papers in favor of deregulation filed by lobbying groups and attorneys for private companies, researchers from the Future of Music Coalition were able to identify just 11 private citizens who wrote in support of Powell’s consolidation agenda.

That 97 percent mark will go up to more than 99 percent, because this week 105,000 National Rifle Association members buried the FCC with comments in opposition to further media mergers. The NRA is nervous that greater consolidation will mean liberal, “gun hating” companies will control the news. At the same time,, the liberal grassroots organization that sprang up in opposition to President Clinton’s impeachment, is preparing to deliver an anti-consolidation petition to the FCC next week. That petition will boast approximately 180,000 signatures.

Yet all indications suggest public comments have had no effect on Powell’s position. “If you write a letter saying, ‘I’m opposed to this consolidation,’ I think it’ll be put in a pile and ignored,” Belendiuk says. “But when Rupert Murdoch wants to talk to chairman Powell, he’ll get all the time he needs.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>