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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill Photo: Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill
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THE MEDIA TODAY: TRUTH OR LIES? - 9.16.03
About the Series
Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


Television Poll Do Americans feel they can trust the media? View the results of the Flashpoints USA nationwide survey.



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Media Frenzy Mega-Media The State of News


Gwen Ifill and Michael Powell, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, discuss the implications of the new FCC regulations.

Gwen Ifill:
How do you explain the backlash — backlash from Congress; backlash from e-mail, some of it organized, a lot of it not? What is it about these rules, which have struck a chord with the American public?

Michael Powell:
There has been an increasing distrust with the media. I will tell you I've been through a — a huge portion of the — of the hundreds and thousands, even millions, of comments we received. Many of them are — are simple statements like, you know, "I hate big media," "Big media is too big," "Can't trust them." That doesn't tell me whether the rule should be 35 or 45. That's my job to find that balance. But what it tells me is there really is a goodwill problem, and the public has some concerns about its media landscape.

Ifill:
And the goodwill problem is the problem of the media companies, or the problem of the FCC?

Powell:
Well, I actually personally think that the substance of what most people are concerned about usually boils down to something they see on television. They either see too much of something they're against. For those who are — are concerned about indecency, violence and sex, think that there's too much of that on television.

I think, if you look at the NRA — who, by the way, in the comment cycle was — probably 75 percent of the cards we received were from NRA membership, and all of them said, "Stop gun-hating media liberal elites" — they think the problem is that television is too liberal. Then we get many, many concerns raised by liberal politicians that the rise of Fox network and conservative talk radio is the problem.

Ifill:
You have, since these rules came out, proposed a Localism Taskforce — and a couple of other blue-ribbon efforts to try to encourage or examine the ability of different voices to be heard. If what you did was completely defensible and supportable and the proper role for the Federal Communications Commission, why come out with these rules now?

Powell:
There are two kinds of rules in this area: ownership rules — how many stations does a guy get to own, period. That has something to do with localism, but it's a little bit clumsy. You know, does owning five stations, or eight, mean you'll be — you'll have more local content?

There's also another set of rules, called behavioral rules, in which maybe we just more directly say, "You have to carry X amount of local programming," or, "You have to have children's programming," or, "You have to have to news programming." Maybe we should be evaluating what broadcasters are actually doing and more directly consider the problem.

Ifill:
At this point, do you consider yourself to be a referee in a fight that's going around you, or an advocate for something or someone? And if you're an advocate, in a way, for whom?

Powell:
The answer always is "for the public." I mean I think I'm a referee and an advocate for a good result. But I think it's important for me to try to help shape the debate. And one point that we haven't touched on that I think is really going to be important is what's really happening to television. I'll be very dramatic here. I think free TV is dying. And I think what's happening is quality programming is leaving TV and going to cable and satellite and pay TV platforms. And I think we're fighting over yesterday's world.

Ifill:
Why is that, do you think?

Powell:
There're a lot of compelling reasons. One of them is the economic models. Cable has two sources of income. Cable has greater creative freedom. &quto;Sopranos," "Sex and the City" — shows like that couldn't be on TV. Why? Because they would be regulated under the indecency provisions and all kinds of other things. This year, for the first time in history, cable prime-time ratings surpassed free TV. It's a moment of truth. And it won't be tomorrow, and it won't be next year, and people will say, "Mike Powell's being melodramatic." But I'm happy to go on record that in ten years or so, you're going to see that the vast majority of all electronic media is going to be on a pay platform, if government policy does nothing to help try to stop that demise.


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