FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is one shrewd operator. When it comes to media policy, this Bush-appointed bureaucrat will do whatever it takes to get it done his way. Unfortunately, Martin's way has nothing to do with his sworn duty to serve the public -- or pay attention to the facts.
It's more about his unyielding drive to allow the nations most powerful companies media conglomerates -- including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Sam Zell's Tribune Company -- to swallow up more of our local news outlets.
Why Martin is doing this is the subject of considerable speculation. It's certainly not because the public wants Big Media to gain control of more local news.
Damn the Public. Full Speed Ahead
Earlier this month the FCC convened the final of six public hearings to air out concerns about this proposed rule change. I have watched, listened to or attended all of these hearings and one thing is clear. The public is single-mindedly opposed to more media consolidation.
Martin himself admitted recently that he remembers "only one" public witness calling for relaxation of media ownership rules at these hearings.
This public opposition is not just evident in the passion of the thousands of people who testified against consolidation at FCC hearings in Seattle, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tampa, Harrisburg and Chicago. It's a fact reflected in the public record.
The last time the FCC tried to change the rules in 2003, millions of people contacted Congress and the FCC to oppose the changes, which were ultimately thrown out by the courts. My organization, Free Press, checked the public comments of those who have written the FCC since June 2006 and found that more than 99 percent opposed changing the rules.
Despite the massive outcry, Martin has not wavered in his rush to let loose a new wave of consolidation by the end of the year.
Damn the Evidence. Full Speed Ahead.
So, why does Martin remain determined to turn a blind eye to the public?
In a new report released on Monday, Free Press found that Martin's claim that the newspaper is an "endangered species" is greatly exaggerated.
Consider this: Revenue per circulated newspaper copy increased from 2005 to 2006. Industry-wide, newspapers still enjoy operating profit margins near or above 20 percent -- higher than the S&P 500 average.
Recent mergers and acquisitions further demonstrate that newspapers remain highly valued properties. Prices paid for newspaper companies have been above 10 times cash flow, with average stock prices at eight times cash flow. These values are considered quite healthy by financial industry standards.
Damn Local Control. Full Speed Ahead.
There's more. Martin's FCC has claimed that cross-owned stations do more local news, but we found using the FCC's own data that markets with cross-owned stations produce fewer total minutes of local news.
Higher levels of local ownership lead to more local news at the market level, while increasing market concentration decreases the production of local news.
Martin is not unaware of this. The evidence was filed in the official FCC docket and presented to him by Free Press Research Director Derek Turner during an Oct. 31 localism hearing in Washington, D.C.
That's not all. In making his case for consolidation, Martin claims that the Internet has wrought considerable changes to the media marketplace. The stripping away of cross-ownership rules is essential to the survival of newspapers and broadcasters, he concludes.
This simply isn't true.
Only a small percentage of the public uses the Internet as their primary source for local news, and those that do are visiting the Web sites of their local broadcasters and newspapers. The Newspaper Association of America found that nearly 60 million Americans visited local newspaper Web sites during the second quarter of 2007 -- and that newspapers online readership has grown five-fold since 2000.
The challenge for newspapers is not to rewrite rules that would allow them to merge their newsrooms with those of local TV and radio stations. It's to figure out new and inventive ways to capitalize on the remarkable increase in online traffic to their sites.
Damn Diversity. Full Speed Ahead.
If that wasn't enough, there's a real bombshell in all of this. It's the FCC's charge to ensure diversity in media. But Martin's proposed new rules would make the glaring lack of diversity in media even worse.
Again, the evidence speaks for itself. According to a Free Press study from October 2006, people of color - representing a third of the nation's population -- own little more than 3 percent of commercial TV stations in the country.
What's worse, an updated analysis released today suggests that the future of minority TV station ownership is in jeopardy. From October 2006 to October 2007, African-American TV station ownership dropped by 60 percent -- falling from 19 stations to eight stations in just a single year.
The situation has become so precarious that Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called it a "national disgrace."
The real disgrace though is Martin's efforts to spawn further consolidation without addressing the lack of diversity with policies that foster more -- not fewer -- minority voices in the media.
Replacing Martin's own Rhetoric with Reality
Can you think of any other policy issue where the evidence falls into such neat alignment with public opinion? The only thing standing in the way is one powerful man who has determined to ignore the facts and write another blank check to Big Media.
During the FCC's final public hearing in Seattle, Martin labeled as "rhetoric" the many speeches by those opposing media consolidation. But isn't rhetoric the final refuge of those who can't marshal facts to make their argument?
Above it all is the need to revitalize our media system in service of better democracy. The ideals of an open and free press that once set our nation apart from the rest have been ransacked for too long by corporate profiteers and fawning bureaucrats.
No matter what your political beliefs, bringing more diversity of ownership and local control to our media would help boost our ability to engage in the issues of our time.
That should seem obvious to everyone. The real challenge is to make public officials like Kevin Martin more accountable to the Americans he's supposed to serve.