Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist
Obama's FCC disappoints on media, Internet policies
President Obama's Federal Communications Commission is making decisions candidate Obama would have opposed. Editorial Page Editor Ryan Blethen urges the president to engage his FCC chairman and tighten up cross-ownership rules.
Times editorial page editor
There was much hope when President Obama was inaugurated that the United States finally had a president who supported and understood media policies that would foster an independent press and ensure an open, creative Internet.
Unfortunately that has not been the case. Obama appears to be no different from his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Both presidents did great harm to this nation's media and communications systems.
Clinton ushered in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed for devastating consolidation of radio stations. Bush's Federal Communications Commission worked against Net neutrality and inexplicably changed cross-ownership rules to allow for further consolidation of newspapers and broadcast outlets.
Obama's FCC has gone so far as to file a legal brief defending the Bush FCC's expansion of media consolidation.
At the end of 2007, then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced the change in cross-ownership rules in an op-ed in The New York Times. The op-ed was published on a Monday. The Friday before, Martin and the FCC commissioners were in Seattle for the last public hearing on the matter. Martin's decision was so quick he even surprised his FCC counterparts with the announcement.
It is laughable to believe that Martin was able to digest the mountain of information gathered from studies and public hearings to make an informed decision. Yet that is what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is claiming in a brief filed in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
The cross-ownership rule Genachowski is defending ended up in court because it was a slap in the face of good process and a change that only benefited large corporations looking to extract the worth out of news outlets.
The Martin rule changes allowed a company to own a newspaper and broadcast station in any of the nation's top 20 media markets so long as there were no fewer than eight media outlets in the market.
Martin's changes also allowed the FCC to grant waivers for combinations that didn't meet the top-20 criteria. To top it off, the FCC approved 42 permanent waivers.
These weren't good changes in 2007 and they are not appropriate now. Readers, viewers and listeners are not served by consolidated media controlled by public corporations and venture capitalists.
The FCC could have done something sooner. Instead Genachowski decided to wait until the court took up the matter. Now he is defending a woeful Bush administration policy.
It shouldn't have happened like this. Obama was a vocal champion of good media policy as a senator and presidential candidate. He supported Net neutrality, he opposed media consolidation and favored policies that fostered ownership diversity. He even signed a letter opposing Martin's 2007 rule changes.
When Obama appointed Genachowski as FCC Chairman there was an assumption the appointee would champion the things that Obama, as a senator and candidate, supported.
So far, Obama's FCC has been a disappointment. It's not too late. The commission is undertaking its congressionally required 2010 quadrennial review of its media ownership rules. Obama should engage his chairman and tighten the cross-ownership rules.
I won't hold out much hope, though. If the FCC's legal brief is any indication, it will be 2007 and Kevin Martin all over again.
Ryan Blethen's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
> Monday: Timothy Karr writes about Net neutrality.