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By BOB HERBERT
The New York Times, June 5, 2003
The latest government giveaway to big business came Monday when the Federal Communications Commission eased a number of media ownership restrictions that had been designed to enhance competition, foster independence and provide the public with a wider variety of views and perspectives across the media landscape.
What we will get instead is a further consolidation of news and entertainment outlets under the control of a handful of giant corporations. The assets and the tremendous power of these media biggies were enhanced - and the interests of the viewing, listening and reading public were eroded - by the controversial 3-to-2 vote of the F.C.C. commissioners.
This was, understandably, a big story.
Not so widely covered was an interesting and enlightening study by the Center for Public Integrity on the "cozy" relationship between F.C.C. officials and the telecommunications and broadcasting industries they are supposed to be regulating.
The center examined the travel records of F.C.C. employees and found that over the last eight years, commissioners and staff members have taken 2,500 trips costing $2.8 million that were "primarily" paid for by members of the telecommunications and broadcast industries.
Can you say conflict of interest? Can you imagine how maybe - just maybe - the interests of ordinary men and women, who don't have the money or the entree to lobby the F.C.C. and entertain its staffers, could be overlooked? How about trampled?
"This shows us just how close, how incestuous, the industry and its regulating agency are," said Charles Lewis, the center's executive director.
According to the study:
"The top destination was Las Vegas, with 330 trips. Second was New Orleans, with 173 trips. And third was New York, with 102 trips." Other "popular" destinations were London (98 trips), San Francisco, Palm Springs, Buenos Aires and Beijing.
I wish I could tell you this was unusual. But the fact is that many government agencies accept millions of dollars annually from industries and other special interests for trips to meetings, conferences, retreats, whatever. The government beneficiaries of this largess are frequently wined and dined in luxurious settings. They network. They party. And they will tell you they are not influenced at all by this wonderful treatment.
The F.C.C. is overridden - "like locusts, really" said Mr. Lewis - by lobbyists and top industry executives. Control of the nation's airwaves, which is the most direct and effective way of controlling how we think and feel and vote and spend our cash, is one of the great prizes America has to offer. Each opportunity to grab additional control is seized upon ferociously by the big media honchos.
The Center for Public Integrity reported that there were more than 70 closed-door meetings in recent months between F.C.C. officials and representatives of the nation's top broadcasters, including very powerful chief executives, to discuss the relaxation of media ownership restrictions, the key issue that was voted on Monday.
The two major groups that represented the public on this issue were Consumers Union and the Media Access Project. Representatives of those groups met just five times with F.C.C. officials.
A particularly revealing moment occurred Sunday, the day before the vote, on the ABC program "This Week." During an interview with F.C.C. chairman, Michael Powell, the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, noted that a survey of 500,000 comments on the F.C.C. Web site showed that more than 97 percent "were opposed to the new rules."
"Doesn't that make you wonder," Mr. Stephanopoulos asked, "whether you might be misreading the public interest here?"
Mr. Powell said he didn't think so. He said the F.C.C. had "taken those comments into deep consideration." He even said, "I think that they're valid."
"But unfortunately," said Mr. Powell, "as you can understand, most of the comments are `I'm not for consolidation.' Well, Mike Powell is not for consolidation either. But that is not the specific task we have before us."
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