Elizabeth Blanks Hindman, associate professor of communication and gradate program director for the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at WSU, presented testimony last week on media ownership before a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission.
 
Her testimony contended that media ownership rule changes proposed in 2006 run counter to the public stewardship obligation of the FCC. Below are her comments.
 
For more information, click on any of the following links ONLINE @
 
* 11-14-07 Seattle Times — FCC chief tweaks media-owner view

* 11-13-07 Seattle PI — FCC chief: End big-market ownership ban

* 11-10-07 Seattle Times — Seattle crowd blasts FCC on big media

* 11-09-07 Seattle Ti mes —  FCC must embrace the digital age

* 11-09-07 Seattle Times — FCC in Seattle: time to listen
* 11-09-07  WSU Today
 
 
Hindman’s comments:
 
I am a board member of Office of Communication, Inc. for the United Church of Christ, and a professor in the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University. Murrow is from Washington State, and we try to live his legacy of independence and ethical behavior.  Today I want to talk to you about what I see as broadcasters’ legal and ethical obligations, and also your own obligations as Commissioners. 
You are stewards of the U.S. broadcast system.  A steward is responsible for the property of another, and is charged with caring for it wisely, and for making the best choices for how to use that property in ways that benefit the owner.   The broadcast system belongs to the American public.  The public is the owner, and you are our steward.
Today all of us are here to discuss ownership rules for broadcasters.  Your task is to determine how best to serve the public interest.
I would suggest to you, however, that that task has been done, that choice has been made, for you.  Let’s look at the history.
In 1934 Congress gave you a charge.  As the stewards of the American broadcasting system, you are to, and I quote, “make available… to all the people of the United States, without discrimination …[a] radio communication service ….”   Those words from the Communications Act are clear, direct, and unequivocal.  Your responsibility is to all the people, including those who would not be served well by your proposed changes. 
In 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court considered an issue not unlike what faces you today.  The two major radio networks were chafing at FCC requirements.  In that case  the Court understood the balance you must strike between the wishes of private enterprise and the needs of the American public, and the Court sided clearly with the public.
  
In 1966, members of the public in Jackson, Mississippi took issue with the discriminatory news coverage provided by WLBT Television.  That battle between a broadcaster and its public came to Judge—later Chief Justice—Warren Burger.  Judge Burger concluded that the “representatives of the listening public”  have the right to intervene in license renewals.  In other words, Judge Burger held that you, as stewards for the American public, must take the public’s views into account. 
 
 In the 1960s Red Lion Broadcasting Company of Pennsylvania challenged the FCC’s interpretation of “public interest.”  In the ensuing Supreme Court case Justice Byron White—who always expected ethical behavior of the media—summarized the answer to today’s question concerning ownership rules.  He wrote, “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market….”
Let me repeat:  The FCC may not “countenance monopolization” of the marketplace of ideas.   You are the stewards of that marketplace, and your obligations are clear. 
 
And of course not all court cases on the subject are old.  Far more recently a court once again articulated your obligations to the American public. In order to change ownership standards, you must have evidence that such changes will benefit the public. 
Let me comment briefly on the ownership studies you commissioned following the Prometheus case.  According to comments filed with you by the Office of Communication, Incorporated, as well as others,
• your own studies “support tightening [not loosening] media ownership limits.” 
• Your own studies “find that creation of [television] duopolies reduces diversity by allowing large group owners to increase their holdings and forcing minorities and women out of the market.” 
• Your own studies show that radio-television cross-ownership “has led to less competition and less diversity [and that] …. cross-ownerships devote significantly less time to news programming.”  
• Your own studies show that “the intense consolidation” in radio ownership since 1996 “has significantly reduced the number of independently owned outlets,” the best measure of viewpoint diversity.  
• Your own studies cannot provide the percentage of minority and female ownership; others have concluded that those percentages are tiny and disproportionate. 
• Your own studies show that the current rules, much less the proposed rules, do not serve the public interest.
 
Let me share one example from here in Washington State.  In May 2006 a lahar warning went out from the Emergency Alert System.  A lahar is a mudflow off a volcano; it can have catastrophic effects. Only one 500-watt station played the warning. Because emergency warnings are now voluntary, and expensive, other stations did not use it. Thankfully it proved to be a false alarm. Had it been real, though, several large Washington state communities could have been devastated, with no warning.
 
Commissioners, your stewardship obligation, as laid out in the Communications Act of 1934, in early and recent court decisions, and in your own internal studies, is to act on the public’s behalf.  The proposed ownership changes are not in the public interest.
 
Thank you.