UPDATE: *A standing-room only crowd of more than 500 Angelenos packed into USC’s Davidson Conference Center today to speak out against media consolidation. The event, the first of two official Federal Communications Commission hearings held in Los Angeles, gave the public and leaders of the city’s creative, labor and civil rights community a chance to tell all five FCC commissioners how proposed changes to media ownership limits would adversely affect their lives and work, according to media reports. Chairman Kevin Martin pledged to convene at least five more hearings before the agency makes a decision on proposed rule changes. “The citizens of Los Angeles sent a clear message about how the public airwaves should be used to serve the public interest, not the financial priorities of a few big media corporations,” Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press said after the USC event. QUOTE: “The FCC must first address the concerns raised here and in all proposed FCC hearings before rewriting rules that limit media consolidation.” QUOTE: “Our watch word in this discussion is that the airwaves belong to the American people and we believe it’s time to take them back,” said John Connelly, national president of AFTRA. QUOTE: “When the local programming decisions are prohibited by a remote corporate parent, the public interest is not being served,” said Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council. Following the panel, the five commissioners listened to dozens of citizens – some waiting in line for more than two hours to get into the hearing – who expressed concerns about the quality of local news and programming, lack of diversity over the airwaves, and the barriers placed on independent content and local control by Big Media corporations.*

USC is hosting the first of six planned public hearings by the Federal Communications Commission re-examining the rules limiting the ownership of radio and TV stations today. All five commissioners will be present at the hearing. Not that it matters — since the last FCC panel led by Michael Powell not only didn’t listen to any of the protests against allowing Big Media to become Behemoth Media, but also hid many of its most damning reports away from the prying eyes of the public. In case you haven’t been following this, the FCC quashed at least two studies that could have altered decisions to relax those media ownership rules. Hardly surprising coming from the Bush administration, which has turned the suppression of inconvenient facts into an art form. In recent weeks, California’s own Sen. Barbara Boxer has produced two draft reports from the FCC, dated 2003 and 2004, that had never been finished. The first examined the declining number of radio station owners, while the second suggested that locally owned television stations spend more time covering local issues than stations owned by distant corporations. (Boxer brandished the latter at FCC member Kevin Martin’s recent chairmanship nomination hearing.) Current rules prohibit a company from owning both a newspaper and a television station in the same market and limit how many radio stations a single company can own. Both restrictions are opposed by Big Media companies like Clear Channel Communications and News Corp.

The two Democratic members of the FCC are asking that all reports that were in the works see the light of day. “The time is right now for the Commission to step up to the plate and explain all the research they have undertaken on this topic, whether it was released, suppressed, begun, finished or half-finished,” Comrs. Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein said. The unreleased FCC reports disclosed by Boxer have cast a shadow over Commission research so that “we don’t know if the data that’s being used by the Commission to make its decision is credible or totally uncredible. This is the time for FCC research in the sunshine.” After the draft staff report on TV station ownership was made known, the FCC finally made it public: it found that local ownership of television stations added on average almost 5.5 minutes of local news and three minutes of local on-location coverage to newscasts when compared to those with out-of-town ownership. The report was central to the ownership debate: whether or not relaxed television ownership rules allowing networks to reach a larger percentage of the nation’s TV households would negatively impact local coverage and impede broadcast localism. (Read it here.) Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has ordered an Inspector General investigation into why the draft reports were quashed. But his predecessor Powell denied a former FCC lawyer’s allegation that top officials ordered copies of the reports destroyed; not only did Powell say he was not aware of either report, but claimed that not all reports get published and that the ownership issues had been thoroughly vetted anyway. Yeah, sure. Here’s my own 2003 primer on the subject: Dumb and Dumberer: Why the FCC shouldn’t consolidate without concessions