WASHINGTON — Having taken a beating for leading the charge to relax limits on media ownership, Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell held out a small olive branch Wednesday.
Powell announced that the FCC plans to hold a yearlong series of hearings on diversity and localism, which will both suffer serious damage if and when looser media ownership regs go into effect, critics maintain. (Various efforts to repeal the rules are wending their way through Congress, and a Philadelphia appeals court delayed the regs’ implementation last month.)
The hearings are timed to coincide with radio and TV broadcasters’ renewal process, which occurs every eight years and will begin this fall. Powell said the timing is not accidental but he would not say whether he believes new information discovered in the hearings would have any impact on whether the FCC approves a license.
“It’s been a big year for diversity and localism,” Powell flatly said before announcing the new round of hearings.
The news came at a briefing with reporters he called to preview the agency’s fall sked. Powell began the event by issuing yet another denial that his departure is imminent. “No, no, no, I’m not leaving,” he said with a chuckle. “So don’t ask me about it.”
Powell has spent the last four months under a cloud of controversy for loosening restrictions on how large media companies can grow and making several political missteps. Just two weeks ago, he was roundly criticized for whining about the attacks he’s endured and openly mulling the pros and cons of exiting the top FCC post in a New York Times profile.
Critics on Capitol Hill and within the media watchdog community are skeptical of the value of holding hearings after releasing the new media ownership rules. Regs passed on a straight 3-2 party line vote, with the three GOP commissioners prevailing. In the run-up to the vote, which took place June 2, Democratic commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps pleaded with Powell to delay the vote until more hearings could be held.
Powell brushed aside their requests back then, so critics are wondering why he’s so fond of the idea now. The plan to hold hearings follows two other recent moves he has made in an attempt to mollify critics: The agency created a diversity committee made up of industry leaders and top execs of several women and minority communications groups. It also initiated a yearlong study of how often broadcasters reflect local attitudes and issues in their news coverage.
But the latest move has done little to quiet criticism.
“Color me skeptical,” said Andrew Schwartzman, who heads the watchdog group Media Access Project. “I’m reserving judgment, but I always like to see positive steps.”
Schwartzman said he would like to be more enthusiastic but is worried that the hearings will simply give broadcasters a chance to burnish their reputations by listing charitable events they sponsor in local communities instead of providing a comprehensive review of local public-interest news coverage.
“This could easily become a free-for-all for the (National Assn. of Broadcasters) to trot out all the times they sent Bozo the clown to hospitals,” Schwartzman remarked.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who is leading the fight to roll back the rules in Congress, was even more cynical.
“Sen. Dorgan is not impressed,” his spokesman Barry Piatt said late Wednesday. “He thinks it is an exercise in trying to cover your backside. It’s absurd for the FCC to adopt rules that rip localism and diversity asunder and then hold hearings on localism and diversity.
“Everyone on Capitol Hill recognizes this for what it is: a sham.”