Media Activists Challenge FCC




D

ressed
as mad scientists with large cardboard TVs on their heads, a group
of protesters gathered outside a recent Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) public hearing on February 27. Declaring that
“Communication is a human right,” the activists called
for greater public participation in a controversial new policy
debate. 


The FCC is considering eliminating rules that prohibit the same
company from owning daily newspapers and TV stations in the same
market and that bar broadcast companies from owning enough stations
to reach more than a combined 35 percent of U.S. households. Prometheus
Radio Project, which brought a delegation from Philadelphia to
the hearing, has described the proceedings leading to these potential
rollbacks as “the most comprehensive reexamination of rules
affecting media ownership in the agency’s history.” 


Media democracy organizations from around the country, including
upstate New York, Maryland, Michigan, and Chicago, traveled to
Richmond, Virginia for the hearings and a morning demonstration.
They were joined by activists from several local organizations,
including Free Radio Richmond. 


Before the February hearings, the FCC had received more than 13,000
comments filed by the public concerning the upcoming decision,
the vast majority of which opposed loosening of media ownership
rules. The protesters dressed as mad scientists in response to
FCC chair Michael Powell’s earlier statement that much of
the input from the public regarding the upcoming decision had
been too “emotional” and “political.” He said
he was only interested in “scientific” and “empirical”
studies. 


In a pamphlet handed out at the hearings, the media-activist group
Media Alliance argued, “the withdrawal of official involvement
in official hearings called for by Commissioner Michael Copps
signals a clear rejection of the public’s opinion.”
Arguing against more hearings, Powell said, “…in the digital
age, you don’t need a 19th century whistle stop tour to hear
from America.” 


Shivaani Selvaraj, lead organizer with Prometheus Radio stated,
“This will be a landmark decision that could radically change
the landscape of media in this country. We’re here to show
the Commissioners that the public refuses to be left out of this
debate. It’s not that we’re against science. We don’t
think that the FCC’s 12 commissioned studies focusing exclusively
on markets and consumers constitute science. Commissioner Copps
earlier warned us that they don’t know the potential implications
for their actions. The FCC must extend their period for research
and to hear more from the public.” 


Media democracy activists linked media issues to many different
political issues. Many addressed the role the media plays in U.S.
foreign policy. One protester had recently returned from Palestine
where she acted as a human shield to deter Israeli military violence
on Palestinians. She told me, “The realities of the military
occupation of Palestine really aren’t presented by the media
we see in this country. We hear about terrorists and the language
of fear mongering promoted by the government. We really don’t
see what the daily lives of Palestinians are like—three million
Palestinians are living under siege, but we are led to believe
the opposite: that Israel (funded by billions of U.S. dollars)
is under siege from Palestinian attacks. U.S. citizens bear a
great responsibility in that part of the world because so many
tax dollars are going there.”


Inside
the hearing, several speakers from the public argued that U.S.
corporate media censorship has silenced those challenging President
Bush’s (then pending) escalation of the conflict with Iraq.
Two representatives from the Anti- War Video Fund spoke about
Comcast Corporation’s recent blocking of a video they produced.
Set to be aired the night of Bush’s State of the Union Address,
where he was making his case for war, the video contained interviews
with mainstream U.S. citizens voicing their opposition to the
war drive. 


During the open-mic session inside the hearings, Herb Avram, editor
of Philadelphia’s

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magazine spoke about
the lack of diversity in regards to the media’s coverage
of the war on Iraq. 


Part of the “mad scientist” contingent from Philadelphia,
Avram addressed the FCC chairperson’s stated desire to see
“scientific” criticism. “One of the clearest empirical
examples of U.S. military ties to the media machine is the fact
that FCC chair Michael Powell is the son of Colin Powell. When
the Secretary of State presented supposedly rock solid proof of
the imminent threat from Iraq, the corporate media did not challenge
his statements.” 


When Avram was beginning to cite UN Inspector Hans Blix’s
description of U.S. intelligence on Iraq as “garbage,”
he was cut off a minute early. 


Not one speaker from the public open-mic session expressed support
for further relaxation of laws restricting media consolidation.
They were joined by a handful of the 15 panelists invited to speak
by the FCC who opposed the decision. Among the four Commissioners
that sat with FCC chair Powell, Congressperson Michael Copps (one
of the main figures pushing for the public hearings) was the most
sympathetic. At one point he accused a panelist representing the
Bear Stearns Corporation of evading his question of whether or
not the FCC move would concentrate the media in the hands of only
a few people. When he later made a joke about media consolidation,
he drew loud applause  from the crowd. 


The
FCC’s decision on this controversial issue remains to be
seen. Other media democracy organizations have organized around
the country to make sure that they have some input in the decisions.
On March 7, Public Enemy rapper and writer Chuck D and others
appeared at an unofficial hearing in Seattle, Washington, one
of the many community-organized forums that have occurred around
the country. 


 An example of the numerous nationwide demonstrations organized
in the last few years was the March 22, 2002 event. Earlier, Michael
Powell stated, “The night after I was sworn in, I waited
for a visit from the angel of public interest. I waited all night,
but she did not come.” He went on to say, “I still have
had no divine awakening and no one has issued me my public interest
crystal ball.” In response to what they felt was an arrogant
and anti-democratic sentiment, media activists from Philadelphia
and around the country dressed up as angels and descended on FCC
headquarters in Washington, DC to deliver their homemade “public
interest crystal ball.” Speakers included DeeDee Halleck
of Paper Tiger TV, War Cry of the Information Liberation Front,
and the Reverend Billy. When the angels attempted to enter the
building and request a meeting with Powell, they were blocked
by police. 


Media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has documented
the mainstream media bias and slander of death row political prisoner
Mumia Abu-Jamal over the years. One of the worst examples of this
was Sam Donald- son’s “20/20” report on Mumia’s
case. In its analysis FAIR concluded that the program relied on
both the propagation of white supremacist stereotypes of Blacks
as well as overt misrepresentation of the facts. A few years earlier,
the airing of Abu-Jamal’s radio essays on National Public
Radio’s “All Things Considered” was cancelled under
pressure from the police and Senator Bob Dole. 


The Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia organized
the October 2002 “Break the Media Blackout” conference
which explicitly connected the struggle to abolish poverty in
the U.S. to the issue of media democracy. KWRU’s Cheri Honkala
believes that the “mainstream media has consciously made
the poor disappear and doesn’t talk about the daily struggles
of poor people in the U.S.” Honkala explains that KWRU “supports
independent media in the U.S. and we also see ourselves as reporters,
make use of the Internet, and see the importance of documenting
everything our selves.” 


Norman Solomon, a long-time journalist writing about the U.S.
media, sees media issues as being part of a larger picture. He
argues, “if democracy is going to come into being in this
country it needs to tear down the economic inequities that are
making democracy in many respects impossible.” 


On March 22 media activists organized a “feeder march”
demonstration outside of CNN before joining the hundreds of thousands
of other protesters that had gathered that day in New York City
to express their opposition to the escalation of the war on Iraq
that had begun earlier that week. These anti-war protesters argued
that CNN and other corporate media outlets’ coverage of the
war on Iraq helped the Bush administration by slanting their news
and not providing the public with the information to make an informed
decision. 


Another prominent Philadelphia media-activist group organizing
against U.S. militarism is

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magazine (a project of
the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and the War
Resisters League).

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employs alternative media in their
effort to challenge the U.S. military’s recruitment of youth
of color, they publish a magazine and a mostly hip-hop CD. Speaking
for

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, Kevin Ramirez argues that “the media by
and large has become a funnel for information for the Pentagon
and the Department of Defense to manufacture consent and create
the atmosphere of mainstream approval for the way Bush is executing
the war on terrorism and the imperial aggression in Iraq. It is
clear that the media is being held accountable to the corporations
that own it, that are also involved in the industries of arms
manufacturing. I oppose the possible FCC decision because further
media consolidation will only make this worse.” 


While the current moves by the FCC towards the legalization of
further consolidating the mass media in the hands of even fewer
corporations is quite scary, resistance to it has also created
an atmosphere of hope. 









Hans
Bennett is an anarchist and independent photojournalist currently
working with Philadelphia’s



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and



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magazines.