October 19, 2005

Commissioner Recounts FCC Battles

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Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of the Federal Communications Commissioners, spoke about media consolidation and its effect on public interest broadcasting yesterday afternoon in Goldwin Smith. Adelstein’s speech was this year’s Daniel W. Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture in American Studies.

Prof. Michael Jones-Corra, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of American Studies, introduced Adelstein, praising his “long and illustrious career in public service” and his outspoken role as “one of the voices raised against, in [Adelstein’s] words, the ‘McDonald’s-ization’ of the American media.”

Adelstein began by discussing what he said is the most important issue in recent years to come before the FCC: the relaxation of rules regarding the number of media outlets one individual or company can control. Adelstein and one of his co-chairmen, Michael J. Copps, fought unsuccessfully against these changes.

According to Adelstein, there has been an “unprecedented backlash” by the public against the deregulation. Approximately three million people have contacted the FCC to protest the changes.

“[This is a] phenomena that deserves much more attention than it has received,” Adelstein said.

Adelstein then gave an abridged history of the media in the United States, telling the audience that newspapers had exceptionally rapid growth during the colonial era due to a lack of British attention.

For example, by 1735, Boston had five newspapers for a population of about 15,000 people.

This extreme exposure of Americans to the media continues to today, according to Adelstein. Americans “consume the media” for more hours each day, nine hours on average, than they spend doing any other activity. These nine hours include listening to the radio, reading newspapers and magazines, watching television, talking on the telephone and accessing the internet.

Unlike many other countries which subsidized one government-run broadcasting network, the United States always had a commercial model. The American government promoted the press through subsidies, while many European countries had one or more government channels that were run with taxpayer money and did not have to be profitable. Although during the 1980s many countries allowed commercial television to compete with the national station, over 50 percent of broadcasting in Europe, South America and Japan is still on government-subsidized channels. Adelstein compared this statistic to the three percent that occurs on publicly-funded channels in the United States.

Nevertheless, broadcasters have always been susceptible to government regulations. Broadcasters use public resources, such as television airways, and are thus bound by FCC guidelines.

“Broadcasters agree to provide [media] that – serves the public interest,” Adelstein said.

Other regulations include the number of radio and television stations a company or individual can own in one market and the inability of major networks to buy each other.

Since the 1970s, however, regulations on broadcasters have become more and more relaxed. Companies now own unprecedented numbers of radio and television stations.

“The commission, at the urging of the industry, failed to act … making ourselves a toothless tiger,” Adelstein said.

After the speech, audience members were able to make comments and ask questions. During this time, several people discussed a general public dissatisfaction with the media. Adelstein confirmed that this dissatisfaction was a nationwide problem for broadcasters.

Some members of the audience had complaints about the lack of local news available in Tompkins County. Adelstein said that there is less and less local news coverage nationwide and almost no coverage of state and local elections. A volunteer at a local station informed the audience that community access cable would not be broadcasting for two-and-a-half weeks this month.

“Now, just when it’s really crucial [before the election], we don’t even have an outlet [for local political news],” said Theresa Alt, who works with the community access cable station.

The audience was quite receptive to Adelstein’s ideas and complimented him heartily after the presentation.

“He did an excellent job of incorporating broader political issues with issues before the FCC today,” said Jones-Corra.

Adelstein was a minority party nomination by President George W. Bush in 2002; he was renominated and reconfirmed in 2004. Prior to working at the FCC, Adelstein served as a staff member under several senators, most recently then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

The Kops Freedom of the Press Fellowship Program in American Studies was established in 1990 to bring distinguished speakers to Cornell to discuss free speech and freedom of the press. Every year, the American Studies department nominates and votes on one speaker.

“[The lecture series] is almost a reflection of the ups and downs of the media since [it began],” said Daniel Kops ’39, the sponsor of the lecture series and a former editor-in-chief of The Sun. Both Kops and his wife were present at the lecture.

Archived article by Rebecca Shoval
Sun Staf Writer