Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Media Reform Web Site



Duncan H. Brown, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Ohio University
School of Telecommunications
Athens, OH 45701
Phone: (740) 593-0008
Fax: 593-9184
E-Mail: dbrown2 [at]


Jeffrey L. Blevins, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Electronic Media Studies
Greenlee School of Journalism & Communication
Iowa State University
Ames, IA  50011
Phone: (515) 294-3488
Fax: (515) 294-5108
E-Mail: blevins [at]

Authors’ Note:  We wish to thank Commissioner Michael Copps of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson for their willingness to devote so much of their time for the interviews conducted for this paper.  Additionally, we are grateful for the research assistance of Fernando Anton, a graduate student in the Greenlee School of Journalism & Communication at Iowa State University, and Igor Matic a doctoral student in the School of Telecommunications at Ohio University.  This paper has been accepted for presentation in the Communication Law & Policy Division at the 55th annual conference of the International Communication Association in New York, NY, May 26-30, 2005.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has long been seen as a classic example of a regulatory agency that has been “captured” by the industries it is supposed to regulate (Cole & Oettinger, 1978; Dunbar, 2004).  Although the two publications just cited are separated by a little over a quarter of a century the conclusions they reach are remarkably similar.  In short, it is that the FCC commissioners and staff meet regularly with industry personnel and their lobbyists, travel to industry meetings through the largesse of those industries, and that members of the general public, and their representatives in civil society organizations, have far less access. The introduction to the 1978 study Reluctant Regulators: The FCC and the Broadcast Audience, noted that
In the past, the FCC has been a tight little world in which commissioners enjoyed many personal contacts with the broadcasters they regulated (and their lawyers and lobbyists) and none at all with the amorphous public whose interests the agency supposedly protected.  In recent years, community groups, media reformers, and representatives of minorities have burst into Commission hearing rooms, brandishing court decisions that spelled out their right to participate.  (Cole & Oettinger, 1978, p. v)
However, with the arrival of President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980’s and his first FCC Chairman, Mark Fowler, the broadcast industry soon realized that the era of citizen challenges to license renewals had abruptly ended.  The concessions many station owners had felt obligated to give to local citizen groups to avoid costly challenges to their license renewal were no longer needed.  Now they could get everything they wanted without any concessions and the era of “postcard” license renewals had arrived.

 In the early 2000’s this cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated has again been challenged.  And now, just as it was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, an FCC commissioner who encouraged the public to intervene has facilitated this challenge.  In the earlier period that commissioner was Nicholas Johnson and the encouragement was most clearly evidenced in his book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set (Johnson, 1969).   Today Commissioner Michael Copps (later joined by Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein) played a similar role by participating in a series of public meetings held around the nation to challenge the FCC’s proposals to revise or repeal a series of broadcast ownership rules that limited further consolidation, especially in the broadcast television sector.

 In 2004 the Media Access Project, a Washington-based civil society organization released through its web site a publication titled Tell the FCC what You Think About Local Media  (Media Access Project, 2004, October 7).  It explains to its readers how to challenge a broadcaster’s license renewal if the broadcaster has not been serving the needs of its local communities.  Despite the quarter century separating them the similarity to the earlier book by Commissioner Johnson is startling.  The main difference now is that the Media Access Project’s publication links its readers to various resources on the World Wide Web and explains how to use the FCC’s electronic comment filing system to challenge a license renewal.  But in the face of the continued close relationship between the FCC and the broadcasting industries, recently described by Dunbar (2004), is it realistic to expect that alternative voices can again find ways to challenge the corporate visions of the future of broadcasting as they did in the 1970s?

 Recent events in the United States’ broadcast policy-making process suggest that a combination of factors may have made such a challenge possible.  When the FCC announced in September 2002 a review of several broadcast-ownership rules including limits on the number of television stations a single entity could own, and a prohibition on owning both a major television station and the daily newspaper in a single city, it seemed as though “business as usual” would guarantee the outcome favored by the large media conglomerates.  However, to almost everyone’s surprise, this was not to be.  During the period reviewing the existing rules the FCC experienced an outpouring of public criticism of the agency.  The criticism came in a flood of e-mails, letters, and phone calls to the FCC and members of Congress.  After the FCC raised the ownership limits and eliminated the television-newspaper cross-ownership rule an immediate court challenge first stopped implementation of the new rules and eventually resulted in a ruling blocking implementation of the changes until the FCC could improve its justification for changing the rules (Media Access Project, 2004, June 24; Labaton, 2004, June 25; Ahrens, 2004, June 25).

 This paper reviews the factors working against public involvement in the broadcast policy-making system of the United States and the countervailing factors that have made the successful intervention possible this time.  In order to help delineate these elements the authors conducted private first-person interviews with FCC Commissioner Copps, and former FCC Commissioner Johnson to discuss the intervention of the public and citizen-based groups in the broadcast policymaking process.  Both commissioners are exceptional in their commitment to better involve the broader public in media policy debates while actively serving on the FCC.  Accordingly, Commissioner Copps has been called “the Nick Johnson of the 21st Century” (Berkman, 2004, July 9).

Our examination is also based on an analysis of the struggle over the FCC’s review of the broadcast ownership rules as shown through news media coverage, coverage in trade-press publications, and the web sites of the civil society organizations whose intervention eventually proved to be so crucial.  This includes a descriptive content analysis of the national broadcast news networks coverage of the FCC’s review of ownership rules.  Throughout, an array of models and theoretical perspectives (ranging from traditional pluralist approaches, competing power-structure models, and agency theory) contextualize our observations about the broadcast policy-making process.

From our analysis, it appears that the factors facilitating greater public involvement have developed to the point where, at least sometimes, the public and civil society organizations can either block, or at least modify, the demands of entrenched corporate interests.  Additionally, the role of “epistemic communities” has emerged as a significant contributor.  Epistemic communities are people who, although they have no power within the policymaking process, are often invited to comment on the process due to their relevant expertise.  It appears that such communities have also further engaged the broader populace in broadcast policymaking, beginning with the FCC’s third biennial review of broadcast ownership rules.


 The Telecommunications Act of 1996, Title II, Section 202(h) required that the FCC review all of its broadcast ownership rules every two years and “determine whether any of such rules are necessary in the public interest as a result of competition.  The Commission shall repeal or modify any regulation it determines to be no longer in the public interest” (Aufderheide, 1999, pp. 167-169).  On September 12, 2002 FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced the Third Biennial Review of broadcast ownership rules.  In a press release Powell said it would be “the most comprehensive look at media ownership regulation ever undertaken by the FCC” (FCC, 2002, September 12a).  This more detailed review was prompted in part by a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in a case titled Fox Television Stations Inc. vs. FCC (2002) which had questioned the justification given by the FCC for the regulation that limited the number of television stations a single entity could own by setting a maximum reach through those stations of 35 percent of all television households in the U.S.  A corporation owning television stations in a few of the nation’s largest cities could soon reach that 35 percent cap and several corporations, including Fox Television Stations Inc., wanted the cap removed so that they could buy more television stations.  However, it is important to note that the D.C. Court of Appeals did not conclude in Fox Television Stations Inc. vs. FCC that limits on television station ownership were unconstitutional.  Indeed, the court explicitly said that limits could be justified even if those rules did not fully maximize economic efficiency since there are other goals, such as the provision of a diversity of voices, that Congress might wish to pursue (Cooper, 2003, pp. 11-12).  It was FCC Chairman Powell who interpreted the ruling as demanding that the FCC relax or eliminate the rules.

 In addition to the national television ownership rule, three more ownership regulations were under review.  The second regulation was the local television multiple ownership rule that limited a single entity to owning no more than two television stations in a single market.  In most cases a third rule, the radio-television cross-ownership rule, did not allow a single entity to own more than two television stations and six radio stations in the same market.  Finally, a fourth rule known as the dual network rule, in effect, allowed a single corporation to own two television networks as long as only one of those were one of the four major networks; ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox (Federal Communications Commission, 2002, September 12b). This is the rule by which Viacom had bought the UPN network when it already owned the CBS television network.

 About a year earlier, on October 29, 2001, FCC Chairman Powell had announced the creation of a Media Ownership Working Group to rebuild “the factual foundation of the Commission’s media ownership regulations”  (Federal Communications Commission, 2001, October 29, p. 1).  Twelve studies were conducted for the Working Group and released by the FCC on its web site on October 1, 2002.  Subsequently, the methodologies used in these studies, and the conclusions they reached, were widely criticized.  It was also clear that, with a few exceptions, the studies had adopted either economic or management perspectives and had tended to ignore alternative perspectives that might have given greater consideration to the social or cultural issues at stake (Blevins & Brown, 2003, May).

 As the FCC’s Third Biennial Review proceeded in the latter part of 2002 and the early months of 2003 there was a growing chorus of criticism going beyond critiques of the twelve studies.  In particular there were calls from public interest media groups based in Washington, DC for a broader public debate of the issues given their significance (e.g. Center for Digital Democracy, 2002, September 12).  These requests were echoed by Commissioner Copps who asked for a series of public hearings

around the country, to speak with Americans and better gauge what the reality of particular media markets is.  I don’t want to vote on final rules – and I would be reluctant to vote on final rules – unless and until I feel comfortable that we have the information and the analysis to inform our votes.  We need as many stakeholders as we can find to take part in this proceeding.  I want to hear more from industry, from labor, from consumers, from academe, from artists and entertainers, from anybody who has a stake in how this is resolved. (Copps, 2002, September 12, pp. 1-2)
But FCC Chairman Powell resisted these pleas, and only agreed to a single hearing in Richmond, Virginia barely 100 miles outside Washington, DC (McConnell, 2002, December 9, p. 1).  Not satisfied with this response, Commissioner Copps, and his fellow Democrat on the Commission, Jonathan Adelstein, attended a series of public meetings held across the country and funded largely by a mixture of civic groups, and universities.

 Despite further calls by Commissioner Copps, and others, to delay the final vote Chairman Powell stuck to his announced deadline and on July 2, 2003 in a 3-2 vote along partisan lines, with the two Copps and Adelstein voting against the changes, the FCC announced the relaxation of the media ownership rules.  For most parts of the country the ban on owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market was eliminated.  A single entity could also now buy two or three television stations in the same market.  Finally, the cap on the proportion of television households a single corporation could reach nationally was raised from 35 percent to 45 percent.

 The response from public media advocacy organizations and a number of members of Congress to the FCC’s actions was swift and highly critical.  An unusual coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum, including highly conservative groups and those representing more liberal perspectives that rarely agreed on anything, banded together to oppose the FCC’s decision and try to get it overturned (Beckerman, 2003, November/December).  In Congress various bills were introduced to block the FCC’s action.  By mid-August the pressure on the FCC had become so intense that on August 20th Chairman Powell held a press conference to announce that he was launching a study of “Localism in Broadcasting” (Federal Communications Commission, 2003, August 20).  Ironically, the process of collecting information for this study was to include a series of public hearings to be held around the country, the very process Powell had decried a few months earlier.  Many of the media reports of the press conference were highly skeptical of Powell’s sincerity, seeing the move as an attempt to relieve pressure on the FCC for its media ownership rule changes (Ahrens, 2003, August 21; McConnell, 2003, August 25; Steinberg, 2003, August 21).

 However, the greatest blow to the FCC’s revised rules was not to come from Congress.  Instead it came from the courts. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in the city of Philadelphia had been selected to hear a petition from a small group of community radio activists seeking a stay (or block) of the FCC’s June 2nd ownership rule changes (Prometheus Radio Project vs. FCC).  On September 3, 2003 the Court ruled in favor of the Prometheus Radio Project and placed a stay that blocked the FCC from implementing any of the new rules.

 September and October saw further activity in Congress to overturn the FCC’s decisions.  However, despite considerable support among members of Congress for this, and largely because of the willingness of the majority Republican Party leadership in the House of Representatives to block these actions, no legislation emerged (Labaton, 2003, June 5; Shales, 2003, June 20).  Instead, the next move came from the White House.

 Republican and Democratic Senators on the Senate Appropriations Committee had agreed to add a provision to the omnibus appropriations bill that would have returned the national cap on the number of television households a single entity could reach to 35 percent.  If passed this congressional legislation would have trumped the FCC’s earlier action.  But the White House intervened and the final result was a “compromise” of 39 percent, and this was really no compromise since 39 percent allowed News Corporation (Fox network) and Viacom (CBS network), both of which were at that point violating the 35 percent limit and relying on temporary waivers of the rule from the FCC, to retain all of their television stations (Ahrens, 2003, November 26).  The wording of the White House-supplied provision also appeared to allow the FCC to grant ongoing waivers even if the 39 percent cap was later violated.

 At least for the moment, the final chapter in this saga came on Thursday June 24, 2004 when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia released its ruling in the Prometheus Radio Project vs. FCC case sending the rules back to the FCC for revision.  The court criticized the FCC’s reasoning used to justify the rule changes.  However, because the new 39 percent television household reach limit was the result of congressional legislation, the court’s decision will not affect it.  The FCC now has the option to appeal the decision but with a presidential election in November 2004 that might well bring changes in the leadership at the FCC the consensus among most observers was that nothing would happen in the near future.  Thus, with the exception of the change from 35 to 39 percent in television households reached, the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules have largely been returned to their status before the FCC’s June 2, 2003 rulemaking.

 Perhaps, it was the Prometheus court’s decision that encouraged media activists to fight the ill effects of industry consolidation on another front, by challenging the license renewals of broadcast stations. This is the first opportunity for groups to challenge station licenses since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which extended the length of broadcast licenses from five to eight years.  Media activists groups hoped “to take advantage of the FCC’s obligation to judge each station’s performance serving their communities’ local-programming needs, including educational shows and local-news and campaign coverage” (McConnell, 2004, September 20).  Even though the FCC has rarely denied broadcast station license renewals, the mere threat of such a challenge raises “the specter of costly legal battles to defend station holdings.  Because top TV stations in big markets are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, even the most long-shot denial requests must be taken seriously” (McConnell, 2004, September 20).

The next section of this paper reviews the factors that facilitated public intervention in the broadcast policy-making process that eventually blocked most of the FCC’s ownership rule revisions. In crafting our analysis, we relied on two primary sources of information obtained from private first person interviews on August 19, 2003 with Commissioner Michael Copps at his FCC office in Washington, DC, and on October 11, 2004 with former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson at the University of Iowa College of Law, where he is a faculty member.  Each interview was tape recorded and transcribed.  Our analysis focuses on those elements in the policy-making process that have changed, such as the growth of the Internet and its ability to facilitate more direct involvement from stakeholder groups, as well as those factors that remain relatively unchanged.


Public influence in FCC decision-making is rare with many factors working against it.  For this analysis the comparison of factors facilitating public involvement in this case, and those working against it, will be divided into five areas:  (1) the role of the White House, the FCC, and the courts, (2) the usually closed nature of the broadcast policy-making process, (3) the FCC’s long history of ignoring the public,  (4) the special power of media corporations, and (5) the dominance of neo-liberal thinking in Washington.

The Role of the White House, the FCC, and the Courts

 Kingdon (1995) has discussed the power of the President to influence and, at least in part, set the national policy agenda (pp. 23-26).  This is because the President has the power to veto any congressional legislation of which he does not approve.  Simply, letting it be known that there is a potential for a presidential veto at some point in the future can shift the terms of a debate.  However, the greatest power to influence the policy agenda may come from the intense media coverage of the President.  As Kingdon notes, although the President may be able to help issues make it onto the national policy agenda the options that are discussed as potential solutions to those problems are more likely to be influenced by White House staffers and the President’s political appointees heading departments and bureaus  (Kingdon, 1995, pp. 26-33).  As will be described below, this power to shape the terms of a policy debate, and the options being discussed, was evident in the role of the President’s political appointee to the FCC, Chairman Michael Powell.

 In the case of the media ownership debate President Bush never spoke publicly in support of the proposed rule changes but it was widely assumed that the White House was pushing for these changes since it matched their generally pro-business perspective.  Of course the greatest exercise of White House power was when the White House intervened to change the wording of the rider to the continuing resolution to set the national television household ownership cap at 39 percent so satisfying the demands of the largest media conglomerates, especially Fox and Viacom.

 All of this worked against the success of public involvement in the debates over whether the broadcast ownership rules should be revised.  This was also true of the role of FCC Chairman Michael Powell.  The Chairman of the FCC only has one vote equal in weight to those of the other four commissioners.  However, he has the power to set the agenda at the FCC and shape the terms of the debate (Kingdon, 1995, pp. 27-30).  In this case, Powell used that power to limit the number of public hearings, and limit the time available for debate once the proposed rule changes had been announced, despite objections from the two democratic commissioners, Copps and Adelstein.  It can be assumed that Powell also influenced the decision about which studies should be commissioned.  As noted earlier, most of the twelve studies relied overwhelmingly on economic and management perspectives and pushed broader social and cultural issues into the background (Blevins & Brown, 2003, May).

 Despite these factors working against successful public intervention in the review of broadcast ownership rules a number of factors worked in its favor.  First, Copps and Adelstein refused to allow the Chairman to limit the debate as he clearly wished to the usual “inside the beltway” policy discussion.  Copps and Adelstein spoke out through press releases in opposition to the Chairman’s actions and in particular began to raise public awareness by attending public meetings across the nation despite the Chairman’s claim that these meetings were unnecessary. At first these meetings received little national media attention but this slowly changed in the two or three months immediately preceding the FCC’s July 2, 2003 vote.

 The ability of an FCC commissioner to successful challenge the pro-industry position of the majority on the Commission was unusual but not unprecedented.  For example, at the beginning of the 1970’s FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson was sometimes able to win concessions from his colleagues and published a book titled How to Talk Back to Your Television Set that explained to U.S. citizens how to send complaints to the FCC and challenge radio and television station’s license renewals if they felt the station had note served “the public interest” in their community (Johnson, 1970).  This contributed to a period when many television and radio stations coming up for license renewal had to negotiate with local citizens groups in the communities they served and make concessions to avoid the groups challenging the license renewal at the FCC.  The delay, expense, and uncertainty such a license challenge could create was something station owners wanted to avoid.

 In our interview, former FCC Commissioner Johnson discussed how there was no real commitment to public participation within the agency, and his efforts to change that.  Part of the problem, he noted was that there is no clear job description for independent regulatory agency commissioners.

. . . so I kind of wrote a job description that involved public education and lecturing and radio and television appearances, writing articles and writing dissenting opinions, testifying before Congress, visiting academic institutions, and trying to encourage professors and graduate students to do research and writing about communications policy issues – not even advocating they take a particular position on it, but just trying to get more involvement from investigative journalists, from academicians, from research think tanks . . . .  (Johnson, 2004, October 11)
The “job description” that Johnson fashioned for himself in order to get more public involvement in broadcast policy issues seemed very similar to the work commissioners Copps and Adelstein later undertook.

When we interviewed Commissioner Copps, like Johnson, he had questioned what should be the responsibilities of independent regulatory agency, and its commissioners:

I think an independent regulatory agency in a democratic society has outreach obligations when we are dealing with something as fundamental as the air waves, which every American citizen owns a piece of.  You have got to tell people when you’re changing the terms of the business that’s being done on those air waves and give them an opportunity to comment.  (Copps, 2003, August 19)
In the case of the third biennial review of broadcast ownership rules the role of the two dissenting commissioners Copps and Adelstein, was clearly important in the early stages by facilitating public involvement through the meetings they held around the country.

But, after the FCC had ruled in favor of the changes on June 2, 2003, it was the ability of the public to appeal that decision to the courts that finally blocked implementation of the revised rules.  Following the FCC’s ruling various groups petitioned federal courts of appeal around the nation asking them to block the revised rules.  A decision in any of these courts would have national effect and it was simply through the results of a lottery that the case was finally heard in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in Philadelphia.  The role of the Media Access Project, ( a Washington, DC based public interest group then became crucial since they were able to supply the legal expertise to allow a small local radio organization, Prometheus Radio Project, to successfully argue the case in court.  Without public interest organizations in Washington, DC whose staff has the legal expertise to help the public petition the courts these cases would always be won by the large media corporations.  Because the financial implications of these cases for those corporations can often be measured in millions of dollars it is in their interest to pay for the best law firms to represent them regardless of the expense.

The Usually Closed Nature of the Broadcast Policy-Making Process

 With very few exceptions congressional hearings, FCC meetings, and other formal parts of the policy-making process are open to the public.  However, for several reasons this does not necessarily mean that the policy-making process is automatically the subject of public scrutiny.  Few individuals would have the time to attend these meetings or the expertise to understand the significance of what is being discussed.  The news media also usually pay little attention to media policy issues for reasons that will be discussed below.

 It is also the case that these meetings form only the final stages of a much longer policy-making process.  Krasnow, Longley and Terry (1982) have described the classic pluralist model of the broadcast policy-making process (pp. 135-141).  Here, through the involvement of “citizen groups,” the public is shown as directly involved in the broadcast policy-making process.   But Mosco (1982, p. 26) used the earlier work of Domhoff (1978, p. 63) to argue that the policy-making process is in reality much longer.  Using Mosco’s alternative model it is clear that Krasnow, Longley and Terry were describing only the latter stages of the policy-making process.  It is the early stages, when research is conducted and decisions made about which potential solutions should be considered, that are less open to public scrutiny.

 Kingdon has also studied this longer view of the policy-making process and referred to the very early stages of the policy-making process, where a problem has been identified but there is no consensus on how it should be solved, as “the policy primeval soup” (1995, p.116-144).  At this stage many proposals will be discussed and many will immediately be dismissed as unworkable.  But if the public is to be fully involved in the electronic media policy-making process it is essential that they are represented in these early stages since it is here that the range of options to be discussed in the later, more public, meetings is set.

 Another related obstacle, however, is that the general public may still lack the general expertise to participate meaningfully in those early stages of policy debates.  As Johnson recognized, public input will have “zero impact” if it is not well informed (2004, October 11).  For example, Johnson explained,

. . . you could have gobs of people writing the Supreme Court urging them to grant certiorari in [a] case . . . but if you don’t have a serious federal question, you don’t have a serious constitutional question, there’s not a conflict between the circuits, it doesn’t meet any of the other standards . . . it doesn’t make any difference.  (2004, October 11)
The FCC will deal with public input even during the earliest stages of the policy-making process similarly if it does not address relevant issues.

Fortunately though, a variety of mostly Washington-based public interest groups exist to monitor all stages of the policy-making process and comment on pertinent concerns.  Newer technologies, especially the development of the World Wide Web have also made it easier for these groups to disseminate the results of that monitoring and provide a context to understand the significance of the policy options being discussed.

 From the very earliest stages of the discussions regarding the review of broadcast ownership rules these public interest groups were monitoring what was happening and making that information available to their members.  Later, this information was used to motivate exceptionally large numbers of the public to contact the FCC and their members of congress via letter writing campaigns, e-mail messages, and telephone calls.  Although Chairman Powell sought to ignore this deluge of overwhelmingly critical messages many members of Congress began to take notice as the volume increased (Scott, 2004, p. 646).  All of this made it impossible for FCC Chairman Powell to keep the media ownership issue as a relatively inconspicuous, “inside the beltway,” technical discussion of a seemingly obscure set of regulatory rules by the FCC staff and the lawyers and lobbyists representing U.S. media corporations.

The FCC’s Long History of Ignoring the Public

 Based on the Communications Act of 1934 the principle that is supposed to guide the FCC in all of its regulatory decision-making is that the decisions should best serve “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.”  And yet the views of the public have usually been ignored in determining what actions might serve the public interest.  Indeed, until the courts ruled in the case, Office of United Church of Christ vs. FCC, 1966, members of the public did not have “standing,” that is, they did not have the right to bring legal challenges to broadcast license renewal cases before the FCC or the courts (Horwitz, 2001). When we spoke with Commissioner Copps has asserted that, despite the public having gained standing, the FCC still tends to systemically exclude the public from its deliberations:

I think we [independent regulatory agencies] get comfortable in putting out our notices in the Federal Register and waiting for comments to dribble in from the usual suspects . . . .  [B]ut, point of fact here, we’re leaving out perhaps the most critical element that you should be making sure is included. . . . [T]hat’s the public.  (Copps, 2003, August 19)
Copps went on to describe to us the “opaque” regulatory process that tended to exclude the public during the FCC’s third biennial review.  Copps told us that the “spirit” of the regulatory process should be that independent regulatory agencies “notify the public” when they are about to address an issue through a Notice of Inquiry (2003, August 19).  However, Copps observed that during its review of ownership rules the FCC “truncated that process.  The NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] we put out in September of [2002] really should have been a Notice of Inquiry” (2003, August 19).  Furthermore, Copps noted that FCC commissioners “didn’t get the exact text of the rules . . . that we were going to be voting on—not three weeks before the vote, but until the weekend before the vote.  It was on a Monday.  We got it like on Friday” (2003, August 19).

Another reason why the policy preferences of the general public rarely seem to be a factor in FCC decision making is suggested by Napoli (2001, pp. 225-252).  He argued that the more a group monitors the activities of an agency, such as the FCC, the more that group is likely to get policy outcomes reflecting its wishes.  However, close monitoring is not without cost and “the public lacks the organization, motivation, and resources necessary to incur the substantial monitoring costs.  In addition, in the case of the FCC, they [the public] lack direct means of sanctioning their agent [the FCC] for undesirable behavior” (Napoli, 2001, p. 233).  Industry groups by contrast, as a result of financial self-interest, are very involved in close monitoring and can easily justify the time and cost if they can get the policy outcomes they desire.  Unlike the public, who can only sanction the FCC indirectly through Congress if they are unhappy with the FCC’s actions, industry groups can influence the policy-making process more directly through the greater access they have to policy makers at the FCC and in Congress and the lobbying this makes possible.  Industry groups also have other means to influence the policy making process including generous campaign contributions to members of Congress and the fact that they can offer lucrative employment opportunities after individuals leave government service (Napoli, 2001, pp. 233-236).

 Thus, there is a considerable imbalance of power between the public and the regulated industries in their ability to influence FCC decision-making.  However, as noted in a previous section, the ability of public-interest groups to monitor the FCC and disseminate the results of that monitoring has improved considerably with the advent of the World Wide Web and e-mail.  The availability of government web sites, including that of the FCC (, has made it much easier to monitor the policy debate as documents are frequently posted on the web within hours of their release, and transcripts of hearings are made available much more quickly than in the past.  In addition to their monitoring role many of the public interest groups have also created web sites that bring relevant materials together from disparate sources through hyperlinks connecting users to other web sites.  Many of those public interest groups also serve an archiving function making it much easier to compare current statements with what had been said previously.

 In the case of the FCC review of broadcast ownership limits many public interests groups were involved in the monitoring and used their web sites extensively to challenge statements by the FCC.  Later in the debate, when the news media started covering the issue more fully, material from these web sites could often be found cited in newspaper stories.  The public interest groups also used their web sites and e-mail to encourage members of the public to make telephone calls, and send letters and e-mail messages, to the FCC and their members of Congress.

The Special Power of Media Corporations

The previous section noted several reasons why business groups in general have more power than the public in policy debates.  There are, however, several reasons peculiar to media conglomerates that grant them even greater power than other business sectors.

 First, every member of Congress in both the House and the Senate has radio and television stations in the region of the country he or she represents.  If they are to be re-elected those members of Congress need media coverage.  Since many citizens of the United States rely on local television stations for most of their news the potential that positive coverage might be withheld in the future must be on the minds of these members of Congress when industry groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) arrange lobbying campaigns in favor of the policy outcomes they prefer and bring local television station managers to Washington to meet with “their” representatives.  As a result the NAB is widely reputed to be one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

A second source of power peculiar to media corporations is that they have the ability not to cover media policy stories.  It is often not in their interest to make the public aware that these debates are underway, let alone to give a platform to those who prefer policy outcomes that diverge from those the media industries might hope for.  For example, this lack of coverage was clear in the period during which the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was being discussed. As Alger (1998, p. 109) had shown, the three major broadcast news networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) devoted a grand total of twelve stories (spanning an entire nineteen and a half minutes) in the nine-month development period leading up to the 1996 Act.

It was only after the bills had been passed into law by both Houses of Congress with huge margins, and therefore beyond the power of a presidential veto, that the nightly newscasts on the three main television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) gave any attention to the Act (Hickey, 1995, July/August; Hickey, 1997, January/February).  Even then, most of the coverage focused on the “sexier” aspects of the bill, including the V-chip and the Communications Decency Act, rather than the broader provisions of the bill that encompassed media ownership rule changes and the reallocation of broadcast spectrum for digital television.  This is not to suggest that some great conspiracy was at work here.  Rather, it is an example of the structural problems that exist when journalists report on the activities of the corporations for which they work and that with increasing media consolidation these problems multiply (Turow, 1994).

 A similar lack of coverage was apparent in the early months of the discussion of the FCC’s review of broadcast ownership rules (Calabrese, 2004, pp. 107-108).  A search of the Vanderbilt Television Archive from the date that the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was announced on September 23, 2002 until the FCC announced its media ownership rules changes on June 2, 2003 showed that the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) aired 10 stories altogether that totaled just over 34 minutes of airtime during their evening newscasts on the proposed changes.  However, ABC’s Nightline did devote one entire episode to the story on May 28, 2003, just days before the FCC’s announcement.  More significantly though, all of the aforementioned news stories aired within three weeks of the FCC’s June 2, 2003 announcement, which was long past the most critical stages of the policy-making process when the public’s input (and perceptions) could have perhaps had more impact on the FCC’s deliberations.

Similarly, Commissioner Copps noted during our interview that the early public meetings he and Commissioner Adelstein held around the country were ignored by the big television networks: “we would get no coverage, and no mention even from the media that was nationally owned or part of a big conglomerate.  The local and independent guys would cover those hearings” (Copps, 2003, August 19).   At the same time Commissioner Copps also described how he had asked one person at the hearing in Phoenix, Arizona how he had heard about the event.  The man told Commissioner Copps that he had “heard about it on BBC” (Copps, 2003, August 19).  As former commissioner Johnson had explained during our interview, it is not longer enough to get the active involvement of a current or former FCC commissioner to draw media attention to broadcast policy issues.  “[I]t doesn’t carry anything like the weight it did back in the 70s when, you know, I just come off the cover of the Rolling Stone and been on every late night television network show . . . those were different times” (Johnson, 2004, October 11).

The consequences of this lack of coverage were evident in a survey conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan group, the Pew Center for the People and the Press.  In a national, random, telephone survey they conducted between June 19 and July 2, 2003 the Center included the question: “How much, if anything, have you heard about a Federal Communications Commission proposal to reduce current limits on the number of news outlets one company can own . . . a lot, a little, or nothing at all?”  Fifty-one percent of the respondents answered that they had heard nothing at all.  But this was an improvement on an earlier survey in February when 72 percent said they had heard nothing.

 It is again important to note that, before news media coverage began to increase, it was the web sites of the various public interest media groups that provided a surrogate, at least for some members of the public, for lack of mainstream news media coverage.  However, we should also remember that the media industries are not monolithic and often have competing policy interests.  This was evident in the debate over the proposal to raise the limit on the percentage of television households a single entity could potentially reach through the television stations it owned.  In this case the split was between the very largest group owners, such as Fox and Viacom who had already exceeded the existing 35 percent limit and were operating on temporary waivers from the FCC, and the smaller group owners.  The latter feared that any growth in the number of stations owned by a corporation that also owned a major television network (Viacom owns the CBS and UPN networks and Fox has its own network) would give them increased power over television stations affiliated with that network but owned by a different entity.  Therefore, at least initially, these smaller group owners and the NAB who represented them, were opposed to any increase in this percentage limit  (Scott, 2004).

 Thus, while the large media conglomerates have significant advantages in shaping media policy debates in ways that they believe will serve their interests it should be remembered that other sectors within that industry, or related media industries, may not share a similar vision.  These divergent views can often be used to advantage by those pursuing policies aimed at creating media systems that serve social and cultural goals instead of simply promoting economic efficiency.

The Power of Neo-Liberal Thinking in Washington, DC

 Neo-liberal thinking, based on an almost religious belief in the power of the marketplace to deliver the ‘best’ result, has been the dominant ideology in Washington, DC for at least the past quarter century.  Its three main goals have been the privatization of any state-owned enterprises, the liberalization of markets, and government deregulation.  Indeed, government regulation was seen as part of the problem and an early explanation of the application of this type of thinking to broadcast regulation can be found in the Texas Law Review article written by Mark Fowler, President Reagan’s first appointee as FCC Chairman, and Daniel Brenner, his chief legal advisor.  Titled A Marketplace Approach to Broadcast Regulation, their article argued that the mechanisms of the marketplace should decide what would serve the public interest rather than any determination by the FCC of what categories of programming, such as local current affairs coverage, was important  (Fowler & Brenner, 1982).

 The power of this neo-liberal perspective can also be seen in the case of the FCC’s Third Biennial Review of broadcast ownership rules especially in the heavy reliance on economics in the twelve research studies used by the FCC to inform its decisions  (Blevins & Brown, 2003, May).  A news release issued by the FCC on the day Chairman Powell announced the creation of The Media Ownership Working Group (October 29, 2001) to study what changes might need to be made to the broadcast ownership rules quoted Chairman Powell as follows:

Chairman Powell emphasized the importance of policymakers having a clear and informed understanding of the current state of the market. “The first step toward a more contemporary regulatory regime is to strengthen our understanding of the media market.  What media choices do consumers have?  What are the business realities of different delivery systems?  How is innovation in technology affected by FCC regulation?” (Federal Communications Commission, 2001, October 29, p. 1)
Clearly, in his use of the term “consumers,” rather than citizens, and reference to the need to “strengthen our understanding of the media market,” Powell had already adopted a neo-liberal perspective even before the review had begun.  However, at a Roundtable on Media Ownership Policies held in the afternoon of the day that Powell made this announcement a few of the panelists challenged the use of an almost entirely economic perspective.  For example, Mark N. Cooper, representing the Consumer Federation of America, made the following point in the closing paragraph of his prepared statement.
This roundtable discussion, coming at the start of a rulemaking process, focuses on economic markets, but the Commission will have to go far beyond that limited concern to faithfully execute its responsibilities under existing Congressional directives that require it to promote a vibrant marketplace of ideas.  (Cooper, 2001, p. 3)

 A similar point was made later by Professor Douglas Gomery of the University of Maryland in his prepared statement when he argued that we should question a “pure free market approach which assumes that efficient operation represents the paramount--and often the sole goal, for any media enterprise” (Gomery, 2001, np).  Although trained as an economist, Gomery  was also critical of analyses of media industries “based upon the assumptions made in a neo-classical [economic] model which works poorly for judging mass media performance” (Gomery, 2001, np).  As an alternative he suggested a series of six “performance norms” for judging the performance of a mass media industry based on the earlier work of Dennis McQuail (1992).  These “performance norms” were “efficiency”, “multiple voices”, “public order”, “cultural quality”, “technical change”, and “equity” (Gomery, 2001, np).  Gomery noted that most of these six criteria are not something that the market rewards.

Based on his experience not only as a former independent regulatory agency commissioner, but as a law professor, Johnson commented during our interview on what he saw as a reluctance by academicians overall to become engaged in policy analysis, let alone challenge the dominant paradigm.   “I think some of it is just kind of a shyness . . . there’s a fear, there’s a concern ‘oh god, well maybe we’ll get criticism for this because there’s probably some powerful people who wouldn’t like this’” (Johnson, 2004, October 11).  Moreover, Johnson told us that he believes the FCC has ”preordained” the wants of big business and major party campaign contributors since the 1970s and use whatever ideology or academic analysis to support the desired result (2004, October 11).   Accordingly, this would mean that economics is not the preferred analytic technique of the FCC based solely on its merits.  Johnson later explained during our interview:

Suppose that using economic analysis, you bring in all these economists and the conclusion is that you should never have more than one station per licensee.  I don’t think they’d use economic analysis.  I think they’d come up with something else.   (Johnson, 2004, October 11)
Commissioner Copps was somewhat less pointed in his remarks during our interview about how economic analysis (including Chairman Powell’s task force and the 12 studies commissioned) framed the issue of media ownership.  Copps recognized the breadth of the issue that was before the FCC at the time as going to “the very fundamentals of our democracy and our civil discourse” and that relevant questions should have included
[W]hat are the effects on minority groups, on various minority communities?  What are the effects on small business?  What are the impact of new technologies?  How does this affect advertisers?  The list of questions goes on and on and on.  And they were all germane to how we [the FCC] vote on this.  So, I think that the questions that the Chairman and his task force teed up were, while relevant questions, were nowhere nearly comprehensive enough to do justice to the issue. . . .  But what bothered me even more than that was that we had circumscribed the questions we were asking, very narrowly, and we should have been looking much more broadly at this issue.  (2003, August 19)
At any rate, there is little evidence that any kind of thinking other than neo-liberal economics influenced the FCC’s decision to relax the broadcast ownership rules on June 2, 2003.  But there is evidence of a challenge to neo-liberal thinking in the arguments made by a number of the groups who successfully challenged the FCC’s decision to relax the rules and they were aided by an increasingly negative view of the consequences of consolidation in the radio industry since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and growing evidence that who owns the media really does matter.

 Several events and a series of congressional hearings into the consequences of consolidation in the radio industry gained considerable news media attention during 2002 and 2003.  In particular the business practices of Clear Channel, the largest owner of radio stations in the United States with over 1200 stations was questioned by groups as diverse as competing radio station owners, recording artists, and the owners of concert sites.  Recording artists charged Clear Channel with refusing to play their records unless they agreed to play tour dates in venues owned by Clear Channel.  The owners of independent concert venues charged that these activities by Clear Channel were part of a strategy to drive competing independent concert promoters out of business and increase Clear Channel’s share of the market (Lee, 2003, January 31; Davidson, 2003, January 31).

 An incident that occurred in the city of Minot, North Dakota was also frequently cited.  In January 2002 a train had derailed while carrying chemicals.  The result was a toxic cloud that endangered the health of local residents.  Due to a series of errors, not all of which could be attributed to Clear Channel, local emergency agencies were unable to broadcast a warning to local residents to stay indoors until the danger had passed (Lee, 2003, March 23).  It emerged that, because of the way the FCC defined the local radio market (linking Minot with Bismarck, the state capital about 100 miles away), all six of the radio stations in Minot were owned by Clear Channel and were being operated remotely using a computer-based technology known as voice tracking.  This technology creates the illusion of locally produced material when, in reality, much of the broadcast can be originating from hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.

 Public-interest groups trying to maintain the public’s interest in their challenges to the FCC’s plan to relax broadcast ownership rules have also been aided since the June 2, 2003 vote by a series of widely-publicized events that helped to illustrate to the public that who owns the media does matter.  The first came in February 2004 with the incident during the half-time show at the Super Bowl when one of the singer Janet Jackson’s breasts was briefly bared, though this was later claimed to have been accidental and the result of a “costume malfunction.”  Although this is what received most attention in the press, and in subsequent congressional hearings, there was also a widely held perception that the half-time show in general had been inappropriate for a national event that is widely watched by families (Ahrens & de Moraes, 2004, February 3).  This misjudgment was frequently attributed to the fact that Viacom, whose CBS television network was televising the Super Bowl, had used another Viacom property, MTV (the Music Television Network) to produce the half-time show.
 In May 2004 a second incident again helped those fighting the FCC’s relaxation of ownership limits to make the case that who owns the media matters.  In this case the Sinclair Group, owners of a large group of local television stations, refused to broadcast an edition of Nightline, a nightly newsmagazine on the ABC television network.  The edition Sinclair told its ABC affiliates to preempt was devoted to reading the names and showing pictures of United States’ military personnel killed in Iraq.  Press reports noted the conservative perspective at Sinclair and questioned its motivation for the preemptions (Jensen, 2004, May 8).

 Finally, a third incident occurred when the Disney Corporation refused to distribute the documentary by director Michael Moore titled Fahrenheit 9/11 (Rutenberg, 2004, May 5; Waxman, 2004, May 29).  This documentary was highly critical of the administration of President George W. Bush and many attributed political motivations to Disney’s decision.  The controversy was extended when Fahrenheit 9/11 won the prestigious Palme D’Or [best picture] award at the Cannes film festival in May 2004 (Barkham, 2004, May 24).

 In each case, though members of the public might view each incident differently based on their varied political, religious, and cultural perspectives, these incidents served to maintain the views of those people who felt that media consolidation had either already gone too far or should proceed no further.  Thus, although news media coverage had already moved on from issues of media ownership to the congressional debates about indecency in the media (always a good topic for politicians seeking reelection in an election year), the question of media ownership limits kept reappearing in the background.  If the FCC does try to rule on this issue again in the near future these incidents will provide public-interest media groups with ammunition to challenge any new attempts at media ownership rule relaxation.  These incidents might also be used at least to begin a challenge to the dominance of neo-liberal thinking in media policy making in Washington, DC.


In the conclusion to his trenchant dissenting statement regarding the FCC’s announcement of broadcast ownership rule changes on June 2, 2003 Commissioner Copps argued that the agency’s “reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant” (Copps, 2003, June 2).  He went on to suggest that as a result: “This Commission faces a far more informed and involved citizenry.  The obscurity of this issue that many have relied on in the past, where only a few inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood this issue, is gone forever” (Copps, 2003, June 2).  In view of that, our analysis has explored whether the public outcry against the FCC’s ownership rule changes, and its role in changing the eventual outcome, was an anomaly that will soon be consigned to the status of a footnote in future broadcast history books or whether a real turning point has been reached.  While, ultimately, the answer lies in the years to come, our analysis has delineated the many factors that will determine whether public intervention will be effective.

Perhaps, most significant, is the need for citizen-based groups to stay mobilized and bring together the necessary expertise to dispute the FCC’s assertions, and counter the entrenched power of the large multi-media conglomerates.  Although the activities of the FCC are now more accessible than they were just a few years ago to those outside Washington through the materials on its web site ( the daily task of monitoring its actions, plus all of the relevant congressional committees, related federal agencies, and the courts is still daunting.  Fortunately, a number of public interest organizations exist in Washington and elsewhere at least part of whose task is to monitor federal agencies, legislative proposals coming from Congress, and court decisions.  Those organizations then distribute that information to their members, with commentary, through their web sites.  As debate over the FCC’s review developed it became clear that the news media were also using these web sites as an important source of information.  Frequently, a newspaper story would include the comments of a representative of one of these organizations, or material from its web site, to counter the pronouncements of FCC Chairman Powell and the regulated industries.  The World Wide Web now makes it easier for these monitoring organizations to coordinate their activities.

 Such use of the World Wide Web may also help citizen-based groups to become involved in the earliest stages of policy discussions.  Several studies of the policy-making process have concluded that it is in reality much longer than the formal stages that occur in Congress, the courts, the White House and the independent federal agencies, such as the FCC.  Two of these studies were mentioned earlier (Kingdon, 1995; Mosco, 1982).  What these and similar studies show is that the earlier stages of the policy-making process are crucial in defining a perceived problem and narrowing down the range of policy options that will be considered as potential solutions in the later stages.  This is where “epistemic communities” can help by providing expertise.

 Although it has been defined in a variety of ways, the term epistemic community is used here to refer in a very broad sense to “a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area”  (Haas, 1992a, p. 3, footnote omitted).   The members of an epistemic community also share a common set of beliefs about what are the most significant problems in their area of expertise, how those problems should be addressed, and why it is important that these policy actions should be taken  (Haas, 1992a, p. 3).

 It is clear that an epistemic community of this type played an important role throughout the FCC’s review of broadcast ownership rules.  Based mostly in public interest organizations in Washington, but also drawing on expertise from university scholars, this epistemic community provided the expertise and research data to challenge the FCC’s assumptions and conclusions.  After the FCC still voted to weaken or eliminate most of the rules members of this community, particularly the Media Access Project provided the legal expertise the Prometheus Radio Project needed to challenge successfully the FCC’s decision in the Federal Appeals Court in Philadelphia.

 Epistemic communities may also be useful in countering the power of neo-liberal thinking.  The influence of neo-liberal thinking, with its emphasis on economic efficiency and relying on marketplace competition, in the FCC’s thinking about its review of broadcast ownership rules was described earlier.  In part the success of the public intervention was based on a challenge to the assumptions behind that neo-liberal perspective.  Three things helped the groups creating that challenge.

 First, they were able to promote news media coverage of negative cases in the US radio industry following the relaxation of ownership limits in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Second, a body of research existed that could be drawn on to challenge the claims being made by those who argued that the further weakening, or elimination, of the remaining broadcast ownership rules would “serve the public interest.”  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the groups opposing the FCC’s proposals were quite successful at redefining the issue.  As Johnson observed during our interview, framing media ownership as merely an economic issue, “not only disengages the broader public . . .  it also fails to recognize the issues of greatest significance” (2004, October 11).  Instead of the perspective represented by FCC Chairman Powell, that this was an economic issue based on the need for greater market efficiencies and pushed by rapid technological change, some opposing groups began to describe it as a First Amendment issue, a question of free speech.  But this was an unusual interpretation of the First Amendment.  In electronic media policy debates the First Amendment is usually used to argue for the rights of individual broadcasters to transmit whatever they want with minimal government interference.  However, here the argument was for a more collective view of the First Amendment as guaranteeing the rights of listeners and viewers to receive a range of viewpoints.  This shift from a focus on individual rights to transmit towards a greater emphasis on a collective right to receive echoes the ideas presented by Napoli (2001, p. 33, Table 3.1).  It will, perhaps, be an integral component of success if the public and citizen-based groups are to have an important place in broadcast policy debates throughout the 21st century.


1.  Although this list is not intended to be comprehensive a sampling of the kinds of material these public interest groups offered on their web sites can be found at:
 The Free Press (,
 Future of Music Coalition (,
 Media Access Project (,
 Consumer Federation of America
 Benton Foundation (
 Consumers Union (
 Center for Digital Democracy
 (All web sites were last accessed July 9, 2004)


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