BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the Federal Communications Commission finally met this week on new rules loosening regulation on media consolidation, there were no surprises - just the long-predicted 3-2 vote along party lines and the expressions of frustration and justification from commissioners on both sides of the question. First, Democrat Jonathan Adelstein.
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: This approach, I think, shatters the last vestiges of the consumer protections that weren't eliminated in the 1980s. This decision pulls the teeth out of the remaining rules; leaves the FCC a toothless tiger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Republican Kathleen Abernathy.
KATHLEEN ABERNATHY:The federal court opinions specifically tell me that any restrictions we place on ownership must be based on concrete evidence, not on fear and speculation about hypothetical media monopolies intent on exercising some type of Vulcan mind control on the American people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Perhaps not, but within two days over at the Starship Capitol Hill, Senate Commerce Committee members of both parties confronted the FCC commissioners with their fazers set on "stun." Here are Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan questioning FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
BYRON DORGAN: Would you not agree with me that today those who most aggressively celebrate your decision are the biggest economic interests in broadcasting in this country?
MICHAEL POWELL: I have no idea who's celebrating our decision.
BYRON DORGAN: You really don't? Are you kidding me?
MICHAEL POWELL: Senator, I also know that there's a handf--
BYRON DORGAN: Hey, wait - let me stay-- but-- are you kidding me? You really don't know who's celebrating that decision?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: The Court asked the commission to justify the existence of these rules. You could have justified the existence of the existing rules.
BOB GARFIELD: Joining us now to discuss the week's events is FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. Commissioner, welcome to On the Media!
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Thanks for having me!
BOB GARFIELD:All right now I have seldom seen a bipartisan spanking such as the FCC commissioners had to sit through from the McCain committee on Wednesday. As you sat there, did you feel that your dissent on the issue was vindicated, or did you feel humiliated or what?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I really felt that it was a, a vindication. I've been saying for some time that the people of this country are extremely concerned about media consolidation. They think it's gone too far already, and they don't want to see any more of it. And I told that to the chairman; I told that to my colleagues as I went around the country and talked to people - that that's what I was learning!
BOB GARFIELD:Critics say that the fix was in on behalf of corporate interests; that this serves only the media Leviathans. Chairman Powell, during his testimony before the Senate committee on Wednesday said he was simply following the mandate of Congress and the explicit dictates of the courts. Which is it?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I think he went further than the courts required or that Congress required. This was gratuitous deregulation. They had an agenda to deregulate this industry, and I think that that effort was put ahead of the public interest which is the legal requirement that we're supposed to follow. And I hope that that can be turned around.
BOB GARFIELD:There has been a lot of criticism of the major broadcast networks, themselves owned by gigantic media conglomerates, that they under-covered or virtually ignored this story until the vote. In any event, once the vote came in and the commissioners had to face the McCain committee, do you believe that the networks did a reasonably good job of covering the controversy?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I'd say they did a barely adequate job of covering it. It wasn't enough to cover it in the last week. That really didn't give the American people time to know about it and think about it in such a way that they could respond. Now it's possible that they didn't cover it because it's not a great story for television. On the other hand we had direct experience when we went out into the field and Commissioner Copps and I would go to hearings in communities across the country, and we found a pattern that we would not get covered in the local television station if it was a network station that was owned by the network, but if it was an unaffiliated station or an independent station that we were much more likely to get coverage in those local communities. And I actually heard explicitly in some cities that they were concerned about touching this because they were concerned about what the owners would think and they didn't want to basically alienate their bosses. So there was some self-censorship going on. I wouldn't say it was actually censorship from the top, but there was concern.
BOB GARFIELD:Is it possible that this issue is too important and too politically charged to be left to a regulatory body? Is this something that should be handled by statute, directly by the Congress?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Traditionally Congress has delegated to the FCC these decisions, and in the 1920s there was a senator named Clarence Dill who said that the public interest standard is a broad and deep one and that he expected us to use it to cover just about everything. Well the way that this commission interpreted it, it covers just about nothing any more. Dill's vision for a broad public interest standard has been gutted, and I feel that if we're not going to have the willingness here to stand up and do what's in the public interest, it would be helpful if Congress would. And I'm not sure that discretion of that magnitude over an issue of this importance should be left to five unelected officials.
BOB GARFIELD:Now forgive me for indulging in gossip material, but I just have to know -- this was such a divisive issue on the commission from the very beginning broken down along party lines, and there seemed to be so much bad blood forming among the commissioners. Was there comity on the commission? Is everyone being civil with one another?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I think we're getting along fine. These are philosophical differences, not personal differences, and we go at it in the public arena but privately we're -- very much get along fine. I just the other day sat down with the chairman for an hour and a half and had a nice chat about things going on with our families and what the nature of the public interest standard is and-- no hint of animosity.
BOB GARFIELD:Are you telling me that in the heat of all of this you weren't tempted to childishly on you way to your car in the garage let the air out of his tires?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: [LAUGHS] Absolutely not. He's a good person. I think he goes at this with real honesty and integrity and, and a sense that he's doing the right thing. I think that he was very misguided in this particular circumstance --dramatically so. But certainly although I'm very upset with what he did, I don't take it against him personally.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Commissioner Adelstein, thank you very much!
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Thanks for having me on!
BOB GARFIELD:Democrat Jonathan Adelstein was one of two FCC commissioners to vote against the relaxation of media consolidation rules this past Monday.