BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Monday the FCC will decide whether to allow cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in many markets and whether to raise the limits on how many TV stations one company can own. Last Thursday demonstrators in a dozen cities gathered to protest the FCC's drive to deregulate. [SOUND OF DEMONSTRATION -- GROUP CHANTING: FCC DON'T BRAINWASH ME]
BOB GARFIELD: But if a demonstration about FCC rulings falls on deaf ears, does it make a sound? FCC Chairman Michael Powell scheduled only one public hearing on the subject, and even refused to make the rule changes public. Eric Boehlert wrote about the FCC's responsiveness or lack thereof in Salon.com. In most proceedings, he says, the commission hears only from a few technocrats, lobbyists and communications attorneys who have a financial stake in the outcome. But this time the outpouring from private citizens has been overwhelming.
ERIC BOEHLERT: About two weeks ago an activist group, The Future of Music, which is opposed to the consolidation -- they did a study. They went on to the FCC's web site and got access to 9,000 of the public comments, and after they weeded out the comments from companies and lobby associations, pro and con, and they just looked at the comments strictly from citizens, 9,000 plus comments - they found 11 private citizens who were in favor of lifting the, the regulation caps. To say it's overwhelmingly opposed is an understatement. Since that, the large grassroots organizations on the right, the NRA, and on the left, organizations like Move On and Common Cause, they contacted all their members, and they have since sent in hundreds of thousands of post cards and comments opposed to the consolidation. So it's unprecedented in terms of the outpouring in interest in the public comments, and it's unprecedented in terms of the overwhelming sentiment of the public comments.
BOB GARFIELD:Does the FCC or any other federal agency for that matter have to heed the advice that it gets from the various parties during the public comment period or is it, you know, strictly informational?
ERIC BOEHLERT: No, the FCC does not technically have to take into account what anyone says. But the idea is, you know, in theory -- the FCC is supposed to be regulating the communications industry on behalf of the public. And so it would be nice if they took into account what the public thought -- if they went to the trouble of asking the public what they thought. Now they know and the critics are saying Powell doesn't care what the public thinks. This was a done deal, and the vote's going to go ahead, and it sort of makes a mockery out of the whole process.
BOB GARFIELD:The Democrats on the FCC staged a series of public meetings. Although the chairman didn't care to participate they staged them anyway. What was the outcome of those meetings?
ERIC BOEHLERT: I think the effect was to get people talking about the issue. Certainly, five, six months ago -- if there was very little TV press coverage, today, there was none then, and even the newspapers were doing relatively little. The commissioners wanted to get people talking about this, and I think they worked, and I think that when people hear about this, almost everyone has the same reaction. It's hard to find people on the street and say do you think, you know, GE and CBS should be able to own more and more? -- you just don't find many people who say yes, of course, please let them buy my newspaper and all my radio stations.
BOB GARFIELD:Now in a fairly rare media appearance, Chairman Powell was on CNN earlier this week. He said he doesn't believe that it's the FCC's responsibility to quote "Govern by polls and surveys, but rather to make a decision when the record is complete." And then he went on to say that the record is now complete. Well if he's not talking about the public comment, what is he talking about?
ERIC BOEHLERT: That's a good question. I mean it's a -- one of the ironies is, again, that these Democratic commissioners took these shows on the road and Powell said look, we've heard from the public; we've had tens of thousands of public comments. The public has never spoken up about an issue like this before. And he sort of hails it as a high-tech advancement in this sort of public discourse, but what he fails to always mention is that 99.9 percent of the comments are opposed to the consolidation. So yeah, I guess the record is complete. It just depends on which record you're looking at -- the record that the communication companies have put forward or the record that, you know, the public has amassed.
BOB GARFIELD:In looking at the question why -- why is Chairman Powell and the Republican majority on the FCC so hell bent on deregulating the broadcast industry. So far the, I think the consensus is that it's principally an ideological impetus. But an organization called the Center for Public Integrity released a study last week about the FCC's travel habits and who was picking up the tab. Tell me about that.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Well it was probably not surprising, but I mean overwhelmingly the people who are picking up the tab are these large communication companies. I mean the numbers were staggering. I mean hundreds and hundreds of trips over the last few years, and it's not just commissioners, it's their staff. If you're a company lobbying the FCC, you get direct access; you get to travel with the people. But if you're a private citizen, you essentially get to write an e-mail that goes into a pile in the basement somewhere as public comment. But it's interesting, you know, two of the Democratic commissioners did ten of their own public hearings, and they were essentially told by the FCC we have no money - we have no budget for these, so they essentially did it out of their pocket, and then it turns out, you know, I think there have been 150 trips to New Orleans in the last few years alone for the FCC paid by private communication companies. So it's an insight to how the FCC really works.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric, thanks very much.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD:Eric Boehlert is a senior writer for Salon.com and he's been following the FCC as it prepares to revise its limits on media ownership.