Roaring at the Toothless Tiger
Public vents frustration with FCC at public hearing in Monterey.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
Scant minutes into the FCC hearing on broadcast media service to local communities, held in Monterey on Wednesday, July 21, someone from the raucous, capacity crowd in the Steinbeck Forum calls out the question on everyone’s mind.
“Where is he?” yells the anonymous voice.
Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Kathleen Abernathy, serving as stand-in for absent Chairman Michael K. Powell, offers the tepid reply, “Well, he’s not here.”
Her excuse for the missing Powell stirs enough audience bile that Abernathy has to tamp down the fervor, lecturing the crowd on civility and setting ground rules for what would be nearly six hours of emotionally-charged complaints, accusations, suggestions, pleas, revelations, threats and self-congratulations.
When the crowd hisses and tries to shout over Abernathy, she scolds.
“That’s not what our country does. Other countries do that,” she says. “I want to hear from everyone. I don’t think anyone has a monopoly onthe truth.”
People are angry, in part because last summer, the FCC changed media ownership rules, inflating corporate ability to build monopolies on the truth, or otherwise. Reacting to subsequent public outrage, Chairman Powell, son of Colin, ordered a round of six hearings across the US.
Years of deregulation, capped off by last year’s move, have created a media marketplace that favors large-scale conglomerates, endangers local broadcasters, and prioritizes profit over public interest, according to critics, who point out that airwaves are public property merely licensed for use by the FCC.
As Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said in an interview with the Weekly just prior to the July 21 hearing: “The FCC allowed public interest obligations to erode almost to the point of nothing. We’re like a toothless tiger now.”
When the new media ownership rules were made public in June, 2003—along with revelations of closed-door meetings with industry lobbyists, and favors done for the commissioners by those lobbyists—the FCC was sued by an array of media interests and citizen groups. Last month, the Commission lost the case in a federal court in Philadelphia and was told by the judges to try again.
Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the partisan five-member FCC board, called the court decision, “…the biggest win in the media democracymovement.”
Monterey was the fourth hearing of the Commission’s national tour. Substitute chair Abernathy could not explain why Powell was not present at the hearing he himself had called. After several inquiries, the FCC has still failed to explain his whereabouts.
Screens on the auditorium stage tell the crowd “The FCC wants to hear from you…”. But Powell is not alone in being unavailable to hear from his constituents. By the time the public is allowed to speak at open microphones, for two minutes apiece, local politicians in attendance are gone. Monterey Mayor Dan Albert leaves quickly after his welcoming speech. Seaside Mayor Jerry Smith and Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero have vanished from the front row by the time their constituents speak up during the public hearing.
Roughly 500 people are in attendance. The FCC was concerned enough about the potential for anger overflow and rabble-rousing that it mustered reinforcements—hiring eight Monterey police officers at a rate of $76 an hour for seven hours to bolster the 10 officers already on duty for the event. The $4,300 security display—a very visible, taser-equipped police force—turns out to be overkill. According to Monterey Police Sgt. Phil Penko, no one gets hauled off.
“We weren’t quite sure what to expect so we prepared for the worst-case scenario,” he says. “But nothing materialized and people were pretty well-behaved.”
The way the hearing is organized, a panel of speakers selected by the FCC goes first. A variety of local media representatives and experts, 13 in all, sit onstage to offer five-minute speeches.
Joe Heston, general manager of KSBW-TV, owned by Hearst-Argyle, offers self-congratulatory examples of his station’s service to the community. He is booed and hissed.
More critical panelists receive a more welcome response from the audience. Davey D, disc jockey at the Berkeley public radio station KPFA, and former employee of the media conglomerate Clear Channel, gets loud and long applause for accusing dominant outlets of disguising hardball business with phony good will.
“They smile. They paint the picture, but they’re bullying people behind the scene,” he says. “It’s just insidious what goes on.”
While the crowd is, as Sgt. Penko reports, well behaved, that should not be confused with meek. Public testimony ranges from one or two crazed rants to very thoughtful, strong and articulate observations.
Martha Diehl, of Big Sur, reasonably requests that 10 percent of prime time television, or 18 minutes per day, be dedicated to public discourse.
Jeff Pearlstein, director of the national advocacy group Media Alliance, whose members showed up in numbers, offers four simple demands: institute worthwhile license review; re-establish the Fairness Doctrine requiring equal time for opposing viewpoints; broadcast public affairs programs during prime time; and charge rent for use of theairwaves.
Some question why the hearing was held in remote Monterey when a city like San Francisco is right up the road. More than one member of the audience asks that the FCC take the hearings around the country, to more than just six relatively isolated venues.
India Weeks, formerly of Monterey, has campaigned against a Clear Channel shock jock named “Mikey,” for years. After playing a tape of a particularly perverted 2001 broadcast that appalls the room, she convinces Abernathy to admit: “It’s inappropriate and it rises to the level of indecency.”
On a few occasions, when a panelist responding to a point goes on too long, someone from the crowd shouts angrily, “Let us talk!”
Indeed, the public attendees had the feel of a mob wronged, then suddenly given the chance to confront the perpetrator, or thank its savior.
In particularly good favor is Commissioner Michael Copps, who warns the public not to be duped by media outlets that say they serve the public interest by participating in blood drives and fundraisers. Those are just cases of corporations practicing enlightened self-interest, he says, and should not relieve them of the obligation to provide public affairs programming and valuable, insightful journalism.
Sean McLaughlin, president of a community television station in Hawaii makes the plea for “localism” in broadcast media by using a readily understood comparison for anyone dismayed by the homogenization at all levels of American society.
“We need some electronic green space in the shopping mall of commercial media,” McLaughlin says.
The FCC will hold two more such hearings, in Portland, Maine and Washington, DC.