The FCC Faces up to the Public @ Columbia Law School, but Which Public?

Yesterday was the first public forum on the FCC’s upcoming media ownerhip review. This one was sponsored by the Columbia University School of Law (not the FCC), and, according to CBS Marketwatch apparently had several hundred attendees in addition to lots of speakers. Columbia has archived videos of the forum on-line.

I watched a little of the forum yesterday, catching a bit from the University of Illinois’s own Bob McChesney, who spoke quite articulately, along with a flack from Viacom who whined a bit about how unbalanced the forum was in favor of media consolidation critics. Boo hoo. I’m sure there will be so such problems for those poor Viacom execs at the next WTO meetings. (The critical rabble will be held securely behind miles of fence there.)

But, to be honest, I wasn’t too interested in watching, despite the congregation of so many luminaries of critical communications. Mostly, I know the arguments that will be trotted out, I know the data about how few corporations own everything, and I’ve heard it all explained quite eloquently many times before.

This isn’t to say that this isn’t important information to hear. But what’s most important is who hears it.

I wish I could have been there not to hear all the speakers but to see who else was there. Was the room filled with average folks, the actual public that wants to know more about their media environment? Or was it filled with media activists (like me) who are there to show their support for the cause and listen to their favorite speakers?

My fear is that the latter was truer.

All along the problem with the issue of media ownership and concentration has been that it hasn’t been brought to the wider public. It has not been framed as issue of political importance. Media ownership has not been communicated as an issue important to democracy. Even with this public forum at Columbia, the news reportage was in the business press or in the business pages. The press just doesn’t cover it on the front page or anywhere near “national” news.

That’s why public forums are so important, because they are one way to reach people who aren’t plugged in to communications policy and don’t have a reason to follow telecomm news. But, despite best intentions, I’m not so sure that Columbia Law School is the best place to do this. Outside of scholars, politicians and career students like myself, how many people feel really comfortable coming to forums on a University campus? I don’t mean to say that average folks don’t want to come anywhere near a university campus, so much as to say that it’s outside the daily routine for most people, and most of us don’t stray to far from our routine if we don’t have to.

Forums like these need to be held in churches, community centers, high school auditoriums and even bowling alleys. The challenge goes to the FCC to open itself up to the broader public, but the challenge also goes out to the media educators and critics.

Yet, I have to admit that I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. Yes, I do a radio show where I try to cover these issues in a way that makes them accessible to more than just hard-core activists. And I do this blog. But, honestly, they’re both pretty ghettoized and have limited reach beyond an interested few. And yet, like the Columbia forum, doing these things is a hell of a lot better than doing nothing.

As a keeper of the public trust, the FCC should be reaching out to the public and actively soliciting their input, as Commissioner Copps exhorts in the Nation. There’s a wide gulf of difference between merely accepting public comments and actually facilitating them happening.

And, then, cynicism creeps back in, and I ask, “but won’t they just screw us over anyway?”






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