The Republican-controlled FCC -- which makes far-reaching decisions on telephone, television, radio, Internet and other services that people use daily -- has sparred infrequently with Republican-controlled congresses. But the Democratic-run 110th Congress is about to heat up the grill, starting with a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Thursday.
Senators vow to press the chairman and four commissioners on matters such as media-ownership diversity, Internet access, broadcast decency standards and delays in resolving various issues. The hearing may cover the waterfront, Democratic staff members say, but there's little doubt that the agency will face a tone of questioning unseen in recent years.
"They've effectively emasculated any public-interest standards that existed" for radio and TV stations, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a committee member who plans sharp questions on decency, media consolidation and other topics. "The entire Congress for years now has been devoid of any kind of oversight," he said, and the new Democratic majority is launching a process that will force the FCC to "beat a path to Capitol Hill to respond."
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) spoke of this at the recent Media Reform conference in Memphis.
There are a number of areas that need to be addressed, but two that could make a vast difference in broadcast media would be for the FCC to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair -- in the truest sense of the word, not the FOX News definition.
The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. With the deregulation sweep of the Reagan Administration during the 1980s, the Commission dissolved the fairness doctrine.
The other critical issues is media ownership. I'm not sure if it is possible to put this genie back into the bottle, but there was a time when companies were forbidden from owing more than one radio station in a market, or multiple media outlets. In other words, one corporation could not own ALL the media in any given market. That is not the case today, and it's one of the reasons we no longer have investigative reporting -- and have news programs that are actually more entertainment than hard news. (And that is not a dig at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, it's a dig at NBC, ABC, CNN, and FOX.)