Communication Breakdown

The nation recently went to war against a foreign regime whose oppression
was based largely on control of the information received by its citizens.
How ironic, then, that we are seemingly on the brink of establishing a
Saddam Hussein-style information system here in the United States.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a new
set of media-ownership rules that would allow large conglomerates to devour
more independent media outlets and impose the law of the jungle on the
marketplace of ideas. If the new rules pass, we could be headed down a
dangerous Orwellian path, with an elite thought police controlling our news
and our culture.

Information is not just any commodity, such as steel or textiles. A vibrant
democracy depends on rich intellectual exchange, on the free flow of ideas
from a variety of sources. This is a principle embedded in the First
Amendment's free-press protection and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. But
media consolidation stifles dissent and drowns out alternative voices,
giving Americans a stale, uniform product that barely accounts for
individual community values.

The proposed FCC rules would enrich moguls, discourage entrepreneurship and
diminish quality. Niche content such as children's programming would suffer.
Minority populations would be underserved. Music and entertainment would
become homogenized, with large media interests also acting as ideological
censors. (If you don't believe it, just ask the Dixie Chicks.)

The rules would further sever the critical bond between media outlets and
their local consumers, as more journalists would answer to corporate bosses
making news judgments from thousands of miles away. This kind of
estrangement can even jeopardize community security. Last year, when an
early-morning train derailment in Minot, N.D., released dangerous
toxins into the air, police tried to warn residents by alerting local radio
stations. But according to the San Antonio Express-News, they could not
reach anyone. Because Minot's radio stations are owned by Texas-based Clear
Channel, they are not staffed at night.

If conservatives were faithful to their stated belief in localism, they
would be fighting the new FCC rules. But today's conservatism is based on
little more than handouts to special interests who bankroll Republican
campaigns. So it is hardly surprising that the three Republican FCC
commissioners appear to support the changes. Nor is it surprising that the
Bush administration, ruthless enforcers of "my way or the highway"
politics, would embrace a policy designed to smother diversity of opinion.

Like the rule itself, the rule-making process has been about silencing
critics and ducking debate. FCC Chairman Michael Powell has put the rules
on a sneaky fast track, holding only one official hearing and giving his
fellow commissioners only three weeks to review the final proposal. The
major media has been a sleepy watchdog, falling down on the job of
scrutinizing this plan. But should we be surprised that the corporate media
are reluctant to shine a critical light on a proposal from which they hope to
profit?

I have done my part to call attention to this issue. On May 12, I hosted a
public forum in San Rafael, Calif., featuring Michael Copps, one of the FCC's two
deregulation skeptics. I also support legislation that calls on the FCC to
educate the public about the impact of its proposal and to extend the
public comment period before issuing a final rule.

The airwaves belong not to Rupert Murdoch but to the American people. They are placed in a trust whose guardian must have an allegiance to the public interest rather than to the bottom line. On Monday, we will find out if the FCC is serious about its guardianship, or if it will violate the public trust.

Lynn Woolsey is a Democratic congresswoman from California.

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