Commish: Media Copping Out on Coverage

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Washington— Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps last week said he's miffed that big media outlets are ignoring the FCC debate over media-ownership policies.

"I have yet to see network-news coverage, a network-news item on the evening news or a newsmagazine. Yet it's something that goes to the very fundamentals of our ability to be good citizens, and it goes to the fundamentals of the kind of entertainment we are going to have," Copps said on Washington, D.C., radio station WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show April 22.

June 2 looms

Copps, a Democrat who serves on a Republican-controlled agency, opposes relaxing media-ownership rules, and he has traveled the country to drum up support for his position. The FCC is expected to announce new rules on June 2, capping an intense political battle unleashed by deregulatory provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Despite his own efforts to attract attention, Copps said he's seen little interest from journalists in his public forums or the broader media-ownership policies before the agency.

"I am not alleging that there is a conspiracy of silence with regard to what I have been doing around the country, but I must say the major networks and some of the major chain papers have not done a very good job of covering it," he added.

Calls to several media outlets — including CBS, NBC and Fox — were unavailing. A CBS spokesman refused comment; NBC and Fox ignored requests for comment.

McCain thought so

The charge of media indifference toward media-business issues is not new. In 1995, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained that ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox failed to cover the congressional debate over loaning billions of dollars of spectrum at no cost to TV stations for their transition to digital broadcasting.

The FCC has six broadcast media-ownership rules under review, including one that bans the common ownership of a newspaper and a TV or radio station within the same market.

If the ban is lifted, Copps expects rapid consolidation between newspapers and broadcasters, and any public-interest harms that might result would be impossible to reverse, he said.

Appearing later on the same program, FCC Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree explained that the commission's ownership rules have come under judicial assault and the agency is attempting to craft rules that can survive court review.

Retention of the newspaper-broadcast rule would not survive in court, Ferree said. "I can tell you right now, to a moral certainty, if we readopt that rule, it will be struck down in court immediately," he added.

Little war 'clash'

Copps has complained that media ownership has become more heavily concentrated, perhaps resulting in more indecent programming unsuitable for children and more homogenized news and entertainment programming.

Some of this could be seen in coverage of the Iraq war, he said.

"Without having done any in-depth study of it, I would say that while there was certainly extensive coverage of the war, there was not a lot of clash and diversity of ideas," Copps said.

"I am amazed, really, just amazed at the number of people who told me they are turning to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corp.] and some of the international media voices to get a little more diversity into what they are watching and hearing," he added.

On an issue related to the FCC broadcast ownership review, National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts last Wednesday warned that the agency's plan to utilize a "diversity index" to measure competition and weigh media voices in a media market might prove impossible to administer.

Fritts hits index

"We have examined this idea from many different perspectives, but we are concerned that applying such an index will be difficult, if not impossible, to administer," Fritts told a Media Institute audience that included Republican FCC members Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy.

Martin has raised similar concerns about a murky diversity index supplanting bright-line rules.

Broadcasters are concerned that the diversity index will end up nullifying deregulatory steps that the FCC is expected to take.

The NAB, for example, supports allowing newspapers and broadcasters to merge operations within the same market, and favors rules allowing more common ownership of TV stations in the same market.

Fritts noted that FCC chairman Michael Powell pro-mised the diversity index would not be too cumbersome or complex. But NAB staff members have struggled with how the commission would actually go about assigning various numerical values to newspapers, television stations, cable systems with 200 channels, radio stations, satellite-radio services and the Internet.

"It seems to be very difficult, at least by my limited scope, to put your arms around that and quantify what it is you have," Fritts said. "We just don't know enough about it to make a definitive decision at this point."

Asked if he had an alternative in mind, Fritts indicated support for specific ownership limits by type of media service.

"We have rules now for each medium," he added.

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