Three hundred people turned out for a "Town Meeting on the Future of the Media" Thursday night, voicing concerns about greater media consolidation to Federal Communications Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
"This event couldn't be more timely," Copps told the audience at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Just four weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was once again turning its attention to the subject of media ownership and consolidation. Last time they did this, three years ago, it was near-disaster for America. We can't let that happen again."
The FCC recently launched a rulemaking that could change how many television stations one company can own and allow one company to own television stations, radio stations and the major daily newspaper in the same market.
"Broadcasters are supposed to be stewards of the public's trust who use the public airwaves for free," Adelstein said. "By limiting ownership of radio and TV broadcast assets, the FCC has always sought to protect citizens' access to a wide range of news information and programming, including diverse viewpoints. Rather than allowing more concentration, the FCC should be promoting our historical goals of localism, diversity and competition in broadcasting."
The commissioners' comments stand in sharp contrast to the track record of the FCC under the Clinton and Bush administrations, which have relaxed restrictions on media ownership for years.
In Milwaukee, the commissioners listened to nearly four hours of public testimony covering a wide range of issues and concerns, with the vast majority of the audience opposing greater media consolidation.
"The proposed changes in the rules and regulations governing media ownership would, if adopted, have profound affects on who has access to the media, whose voices are heard, and whose values are articulated," said the Rev. John Celichowski, one of more than 80 local residents who signed up to testify. "Before we completely turn our airwaves, printing presses and cyberspace over to Adam Smith's invisible hand, we need assurances that the hand will not cover our eyes and blind us to what we need to see."
The Milwaukee event was presented by Free Press, a national, nonpartisan media reform and policy group, in partnership with the UWM Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University and several community groups.
Free Press previously helped organize town meetings in Portland, Ore; Albuquerque, N.M.; Dearborn, Mich.; St. Paul, Minn.; Iowa City, Iowa; Norfolk, Va.; Asheville, N.C.; and Los Angeles.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin also has pledged to hold half a dozen hearings before introducing new media ownership rules. None have been announced or scheduled.
"This time, we need to make it an open, public process instead of hiding in our offices in Washington, like the majority did in 2003," Copps said. "Let all of the commissioners get out into the countryside and find out what's happening in the real world beyond the Beltway. And let's not let them vote until they do."
To read more about the Town Meeting on the Future of Media, visit www.freepress.net/future/=milwaukee.