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FCC Commissioner on Net Neutrality, the Future of Media and More

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Posted on Mar 19, 2007
Jonathan Adelstein

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein

Jonathan Adelstein, one of five FCC commissioners, speaks with Truthdig about the battle to control America’s airwaves, the value of an open and fair Internet and his initial thoughts on the XM-Sirius merger.


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    James Harris: This is Truthdig.  James Harris here sitting down with Josh Scheer, and on the phone we have one of five FCC commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein, on the phone.  How are you doing today, Jonathan?


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    Jonathan Adelstein: I’m doing great.  Thanks for having me.

    Harris: Our pleasure.  There’s a lot going on with regard to FCC and media deregulation and there’s this talk of the XM-Sirius satellite companies merging.  There’s a slumping, as I see, in traditional media form, whether it be television or radio.  And there’s always continual questions about media ownership.  I want to know, what do you see as the most pressing issue for the FCC today?

    Adelstein: Well, the most pressing issue is making sure that people have information from a wide diversity of sources, and that requires, I think, dispersed ownership of some of the media properties so that some of the minorities, for example, can own outlets.  Women….  Right now minorities are 30 percent of the population but only 3 percent of the TV broadcast licenses.  Women, as we all know, are over half the population but only 5 percent of licenses.  So no wonder people complain that the portrayal of women and minorities in the media tends to be either stereotyped or ignored and underrepresented completely.  That’s just one of the issues.  But think about the importance of getting a real debate going, and not only in the traditional media but on the Internet as well.  And when it comes to the Internet, I think the issue there is keeping the Internet freedom alive and keeping the openness that has been the long hallmark of the Internet, what some people call “Net neutrality.”

    Harris: Now, how do you do that?  Obviously, these companies like Fox, the big players, CNN, whether it be the networks: CBS, NBC….  They are owned right now.  How do you open up the gateway and allow minorities—whether it be women, whether it be Latinos, whether it be blacks—how do you allow them ownership possibilities?

    Adelstein: Well, the first step is making sure we don’t have further media consolidation until we deal with that issue.  Right now a lot of the big media companies are asking to allow us to loosen the rules so they can get even bigger, they can buy more outlets.  Now, if you allow these large, deep-pocketed companies to buy out even more small, local outlets, the price just goes up and they get even further out of the reach of minorities and women.  So, step No. 1: Do no harm.  And, No. 2, we need to make better efforts to make sure that the information is out there.  In the last media ownership review in 2003, then-Chairman [Michael K.] Powell eliminated the only rule that was designed to help minorities find out about stations that were going up for sale. We were actually condemned by the Third Circuit federal court about doing that, in that we weren’t upholding the requirements to avoid discrimination.  I mean, it’s shocking that we would be—in this millennium—chastised for not doing all we can to prevent discrimination.  So there’s a whole bunch of ideas that a diversity committee has come up with.  We’ve got to be more creative in ways of getting these in the hands of folks, but we’ve got to start by not allowing further media consolidation until we deal with it.

    Josh Scheer: How much media consolidation has taken place?  I don’t think many people know this.  It’s hard to find these kind of stories.  What would you say?  How much is owned by a small group of people?

    Adelstein: Well, the top five companies in the country—some studies show—control as much as 75 percent of what people see and hear in the broadcast media.  The giant conglomerates that own so many of the outlets and so much of the material.  And they, of course, also have their own websites that people flock to that are the largest, most powerful Internet portals.  So there’s a very small group.  Even though there’re 300 channels on, the vast bulk of them, especially the ones that are the most popular, are controlled by the handful of media giants that already have a big voice in this country.  And our thought is, “Let’s make sure that others can have a voice as well.”  The Internet makes that possible, but the fact is that people still tend to look at broadcasts and newspapers as their primary source of news and information and the real driving force that controls the discourse in most communities across the country.

    Scheer: Now how do we change people’s opinions?  Because, I think I suffer from that a little bit, too.  I like the   and I read it, but I still look to CBS or I still look to CNN or a book, to kind of find the “true story,” whereas you see it on a website sometimes you take it with a grain of salt.  How do we change that?  How do we let, say, a citizen report—and it may be just as accurate—how do we let people get in and maybe report stories, or like, say, the [political] conventions or anything like that?  How do you see that shaping up in the next few years?

    Adelstein: Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional media outlets having real journalists cover these stories in depth.  Outlets that we can trust.  We just want to make sure that there is enough variety that people can make up their own minds about the issues of the day and not have them determined by the handful of media giants.  There is a real benefit to having competition and diversity.  There is not as much of that as there could be, even though there are all these different opportunities, all these different channels.  And the kind of clutter that people are dealing with these days, there are so many different options, but it seems that the ones that they actually turn to are controlled by a handful of folks.  So we need more voices on the air, but not just controlled by the same ventriloquists.

    Scheer: [Chuckles] 

    Harris: Bill Cosby—I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but in the ‘80s, was really looking strongly at buying NBC, looking at buying the network, putting together the necessary funds.  There’s been this conversation about blacks, and about Latinos even, buying major stakes in networks for about 20 years now.  My question is more about you being an insider there.  Will the oligopoly always win?  Do you ever feel like you’re up against a wall and you’ll never really make any effect on diversity in media?

    Adelstein: Well, we do feel like we’re constantly under the gun.  Remember we’re up against here the most powerful media companies, some of the most politically powerful companies in America and in the world today that are pounding on our door, asking for more relief.  And, frankly, it’s an amazing victory that we had in 2003 when the [FCC] chairman did the bidding of these big companies and proposed, actually, final rules that would’ve allowed them to get much bigger, and the whole issue got thrown out in the courts, partly because of the public uproar that resulted from them, partly because Commissioner [Michael J.] Copps and I laid out a real reason why these rules were inconsistent with the public interest.  And now the whole issue is back in our plate again, the whole question of media ownership that we basically won in the courts in 2003 is back in our lap.  We have to start from scratch, and we’re doing it under a whole new environment, where the politics of this have shifted, partly because of the election of 2006 to some extent.  But the ...  issue of allowing media companies to get even bigger is somewhat radioactive, politically.  There’s bipartisan concern about it, the public is up in arms about it, we have new organizations, like Free Press, that are widely organized.  And the public is much more sensitized to this.  It’s kind of like when you become allergic to something after taking a lot of it.  You become very sensitive to it.  And the country has gotten a little bit allergic to media consolidation, which is a healthy thing.  It is an allergy. It’s something that upsets public, as well it should.  So we’re in a much better position now.  So I feel ... we have a good win under our belt.  Now the win is preventing something from getting worse.  And you’re saying, “Now what do you do to make it better?”  Well, it is a daunting challenge.  But then again, I don’t think, if you look back in 2002, anybody thought we could have completely stopped the effort by these companies to allow themselves to get much bigger.  And here we are in 2007 and no relaxation of the rules has occurred thanks to the efforts of not just us but a whole mass movement that emerged.  So I’m hopeful that with real continued pressure on this issue we can move the ball forward, we can put the issue of diversity and minorities and women on the front burner.  We can hope that somebody doesn’t have to be Bill Cosby or Stevie Wonder to own a radio or a TV station.  We want to make it possible for small businesses to have their voices heard in broadcasting and we’re going to keep up the fight.  We’ve won before, so we’re more optimistic that maybe in the long run we can win again.

    New and Improved Comments

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    By Joy Cassell, March 28, 2007 at 11:31 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    The internet is the greatest equalizer.  Not only do we need corporations to keep their hands off but the government. 
    Well intended legislation to open internet access to lower income kids are well meaning but this is the back door though with corporate America can get in.

    Report this

    By vanjejo, March 27, 2007 at 4:51 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    two quotes explain it all….
    I have been watching one of the largest media outlets posting areas *the"eye”* 
    If posters context doesn’t “appeal” to the corporation, they just eliminate the option to post - many times individual posters comments are eliminated and select comments are left.
    On AOL, posters found themselves being eliminated by false “community violations” - thus keeping them off the boards. Community leaders were given technology to garble script and censor randomly.  As long as we - the consumer - rely on a handful of “preferred” or picked media outlets, we will continue to fall more towards fascism than democracy….

    ‘We are grateful to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time Magazine and other great publications whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost forty years. It would have been impossible for us to develop our plan for the world if we had been subject to the bright lights of publicity during those years. But, the work is now much more sophisticated and prepared to march towards a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the national auto—determination practiced in past centuries.’
    —David Rockefeller, founder of the Trilateral Commission, in an address to a meeting of The Trilateral Commission, in June, 1991.”

    ‘In March, 1915, the J.P. Morgan interests, the steel, shipbuilding, and powder interest, and their subsidiary organizations, got together 12 men high up in the newspaper world and employed them to select the most influential newspapers in the United States and sufficient number of them to control generally the policy of the daily press….They found it was only necessary to purchase the control of 25 of the greatest papers.’ ” ‘The world can therefore seize the opportunity [Persian Gulf crisis] to fulfill the long—held promise of a New World Order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind.’
    —George Herbert Walker Bush”

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    By Ernest Canning, March 23, 2007 at 8:01 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Re Julia Gifford Comment #59850.  Based on nothing more than Commissioner Adelstein’s last name, Ms. Gifford launches into an anti-Semitic rant about “the hidden hand of a Jew manipulating laws to advance the interests of Jews over everybody else.”

    There is not one word in Mr. Scheer’s interview of Commissioner Adelstein that hints that Mr. Adelstein is a member of AIPAC; that he supports Israel’s illegal occupation of Palistinian lands, or that Commissioner Adelstein takes exception to President Carter’s astute analysis in “Peace, not Apartheid.”

    While I suppose, especially in a piece about free speech, Truthdig provides a good deal of leeway in publishing the commentary of its readers, I would respectfully suggest that where a reader’s commentary amounts to “hate-speech,” it would be appropriate for the editors of Truthdig to simultaneously denounce such commentary whenever it appears.

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    By Julia Glifford, March 22, 2007 at 2:45 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Sorry - don’t every trust someone named Adelstein to advance freedom of speech.

    Oh, I’m sure he thinks its dandy to speak ill of Arabs and Muslims. But you can be certain that behind all this talk of Net Neutrality, is the hidden hand of a Jew manipulating laws to advance the interests of Jews over every body else.

    Speak ill of Israel- go to jail.

    Just like they’ve done in Europe.

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    By sanford sklansky, March 21, 2007 at 9:13 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Great interview,but I wish they would have asked about the ridiculous fines for language.  I listening to an interview with Ken Burns.  He has a new documentary coming out in September.  The word fuck gets used a few times.  Some PBS stations are worried about getting fined.

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    By EDMUND J ROACHE, March 21, 2007 at 4:56 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    I wonder how long it will take the big boys to put the pressure on to get commissioners more to their liking. Isn’t this the way it always works. One can only wonder why it hasn’t any sooner when all of our other government overseers have already been corrupted. Can anyone name anyone else in government that has power and is acting in the public interest. I can’t.

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    By howellnews, March 21, 2007 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    If the government owned and/or controlled as much of our media as do the corporations, the conservatives would be in a tizzy. It makes little difference that most of our media is monopolized by a handful of private, for-profit companies or by a handful of political appointees—both operate in their own interests instead of that of the common people. The biggest myth perpetrated by the right wing is that the media are “liberal.” What a joke. Go to Britain and read competing newspapers and a genuinely public broadcaster (BBC) to discover what the marketplace of ideas really looks like.

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    By Jeanne, March 20, 2007 at 6:06 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Jonathan Adelstein is an American hero. He and Michael Copp have done more for freedom of the press than anyone else. They will not give up the fight. And they encourage others to join the fight.

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    By WCG, March 20, 2007 at 3:09 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Aren’t most broadcast licenses owned by corporations, not by private individuals? If so, when he says minorities and women own only 3 and 5 percent, respectively, of TV broadcast licenses, does he mean only of those owned by individuals? If not, this isn’t a valid statistic. A corporation is not male OR white, though it’s probably controlled by white males. But it’s owned by the shareholders, who are probably of both sexes and all races. There’s certainly reason for concern with media consolidation among a few giant corporations, but it doesn’t do us any good to use misleading statistics. (Note that I’m not claiming it IS misleading, necessarily, since I don’t know WHO owns broadcast licenses.)

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    By Joe Shupienis, March 20, 2007 at 12:33 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    It is encouraging to see an FCC Commissioner who has a grasp of the FCC’s historic guiding principle of “PICON”—that is, licenses are granted only in the Public Interest, Convenience Or Necessity.

    Too often, the deepest pockets can buy favorable treatment from the Administration, including the Commission. When this happens, fairness and equality suffer. Far too many stations in far too many markets are all owned by the same few moneyed elite—and the little guy has suffered.

    Remember—the intent of Federal Regulation is to give the “little guys” a level playing field in a world dominated by the “big guns”. Without Federal oversight, the “de-regulated”, “relaxed ownership rules” can only result in the rich and powerful controlling all broadcast media, and the poor and underprivileged losing their already too-small voice in the community.

    It seems that it is becoming a crime to have suffered the misfortune of not being born rich. That is not the America our Founding Fathers had in mind, nor is it the “Land of Opportunity” once held up as a shining beacon of hope to the rest of the world. Denying the “little guy” a broadcast voice will only result in the tyranny of wealth and the collapse of modern democracy.

    Joe Shupienis, Consulting Radio Engineer
    FCC Licenses: PG-20-2691, W3BC

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    By Chris, March 20, 2007 at 11:11 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    While I understand the fears of Commissioner Adelstein and others, I disagree with their perception of the current situation.  Namely, that the ownership rules should be updated given the dramatic developments in the media marketplace since the rules were last revisited. 

    I do some consulting with the NAB on this issue and we are trying to inform people that this isn’t about corporate giants buying up all local broadcast outlets, but about having fair rules to allow broadcasters to compete against cable, satellite and online outlets.  Broadcasters are asking the FCC to consider whether these decades-old rules should be updated to permit ownership combinations in local markets that will allow local broadcast stations to compete and continue providing free, local broadcast service, including critical lifeline emergency and AMBER Alert information.  Alone, these local broadcasters cannot compete for the advertising revenue they need to survive. 

    Within the past few years there have been tremendous developments with the blogosphere, social networking, citizen journalism, and more.  These are wonderful developments that expand our options for getting news and information.  However, the ownership rules should reflect these changes and not continue to burden broadcasters.

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    By Fewkes, March 19, 2007 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    It’s great that Mr. Adelstein and Truthdig are leading the effort to keep the internet free of corporate control.  The availability of a diverse source of information has got to threaten those who want to control the internet and control their profits.

    Thanks for leading the charge.

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    By susan28, March 19, 2007 at 12:49 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    wow.. good news.. not much of that these days.. a government agency acting in the public interest?  it’s a novel idea but i like it!

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