Sen. Byron Dorgan on the FCC’s New Rules
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TERENCE SMITH: Now, for an opposing view, we turn to Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, and a member of the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees the FCC and the communications industries. Senator Dorgan, welcome.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Thank you very much.
TERENCE SMITH: First, give me your reaction to what you’ve just heard from Commissioner Powell.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, first of all, I like Michael Powell. I think these policies that the FCC has embraced today are terrible policies. I regret very much that they’ve taken the action they did.
I wasn’t able to actually to identify what they did today based on my hearing Chairman Powell speak tonight. It did seem to me he was in favor of competition and a whole series of things that reflect localism and diversity. The fact is that is not the case with respect to what they did today.
Seldom have I seen a regulatory agency cave in so completely to the big economic interests. That’s exactly what happened today with the FCC rules. And Chairman Powell kept suggesting slight modifications. It’s not slight at all. This is a big deal. It’s going to affect what the American people can see, can hear, can read.
Let me emphasize something that was in your set-up piece. After what the FCC did today, it is likely, in fact, that in big American cities we will see the same company own the newspaper, three television stations, eight radio stations and the cable system in that city all under one company. And I don’t know what happened to this notion of competition, but I’m telling you it’s not there. It’s not embedded anywhere in the FCC’s decision.
TERENCE SMITH: What does this do — if, in fact, all this plays out as you’ve suggested — how does it play out in a state like yours, in a rural state?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, you know, we’ve already had some of that play out. In 1996 we had the 1996 Telecommunications Act. I fought then against increasing the ownership limits on television stations. I lost. We’ve had massive concentration of television.
TERENCE SMITH: And radio.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Same in radio. In fact one radio station or one company owns over 1,200 radio stations. The FCC allowed one of them to buy all six commercial radio stations in Minot, North Dakota. Lord knows how they allowed them to do that.
The point is we’ve had galloping concentration. And I’ll guarantee you that as a result of what the FCC did today, there will be an orgy of mergers and concentration once again. In fact, I read this weekend one of the media giants said they own newspapers, said, “look, in every city where we own a newspaper we will intend to want to buy the television station.” And so I just think these rules are counterproductive. They’re going to injure this country because concentration in the media, as I said, affects everything Americans see and hear and read.
And one final point: They say, well, there’s all this diversity. There’s the Internet and there’s the cable system. The fact is the largest companies control most of the people going to the Internet in terms of the sites they’re going to by programming. They also control the content in many cases. The same is true with the top cable channels. Track them back. You’ll see they’re owned by the other conglomerates. So to say there’s all this diversity, yes, there are many voices all coming from the same ventriloquist. Frankly it’s not healthy.
TERENCE SMITH: You used a strong verb earlier; you said that the commission caved in.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I did.
TERENCE SMITH: In this case. Caved in to whom as a result of what?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, you asked the right question of Chairman Powell. Didn’t you get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of letters in opposition to this policy? The answer to that is yes. He knows it’s yes. And the fact is there were very few interests — they were the big economic interests, the four or five companies that own almost all these properties were pushing the commission to say loosen these restrictions. Let us own the newspaper and the television stations in the same town. Get rid of this cross ownership restriction.
Well, the fact is the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to be a regulatory agency. They’re supposed to wear the striped shirts and have the whistle. I mean they took their shirts off and did a half gainer right into the pool with the big economic interests. And that is counterproductive in my judgment to the public interest.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, he argued, of course, Commissioner Powell, that the courts were requiring the commission to do this or do something about existing rules that he and others argue are out of date since some of them, anyway, date to a period when there were three major television networks.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, these rules actually date to 1996; they’re not out of date. Second, the courts did not require him to do what he did today or what the commission did today. The courts required them to justify the ownership limits.
It was the district court decision that the FCC for its own reasons decided not to appeal. I have no idea why they didn’t appeal it. In any event all they were required to do was justify reasonable ownership limits. What did they do instead? They held their nose, jumped in the pool and said let’s do what the big economic interests want and remove these cross-ownership limits, extend the national limit from 35 to 45 percent for television broadcasters. It makes no sense to me what they’ve done. In my judgment, it is counterproductive with the public interest.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, they are a regulatory body. You’re in Congress. Congress gets its say on this. You have some hearings coming up, I believe.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: That’s right, on Wednesday.
TERENCE SMITH: Later this week, where you’re actually going to call the commissioners. What do you expect from that? What do you expect from Congress?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: First of all, we have a legislative review capability that we can actually veto a rule, and I intend to see if we can find a way to do that. I think it takes 30 senators to sign this which gives it expedited procedures.
But, look, the airwaves belong to the American people. This is not some inherent right for broadcasters to use. They belong to the American people. And the conditions under which they are used and licensed are conditions that every American ought to be concerned about.
You know, I’m just… I can’t tell you how disappointed I am to have the FCC take the action they took today. I’m going to try, along with some of my colleagues, in a bipartisan way – we’ve got Republicans and Democrats who are upset with this — I’m going to try to find a way to overturn this. We should not let this stand.
TERENCE SMITH: And specifically, what would you overturn, if you had to select among the various rules, those things that bothered you the most?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I’d get rid of the 45 percent on television broadcasting and bring it back to 35 percent of the national population, get rid of the cross-ownership; essentially take those things out of this ruling that I think move away from diversity, away from localism, away from concentration. This commission said, if I have to choose between concentration and competition, their value system says let’s choose concentration. I just think that’s a horrible decision.
TERENCE SMITH: Put this in terms, if you will, finally, of the viewer or consumer of these products, the citizen who is going to be affected. Explain how they’re going to be affected and what the difference might be.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, again, in a democracy, the health of public dialogue, public debate, public discourse is the ability of everyone to have a voice in what’s happening. We’re seeing more and more the concentration in media, and that concentration now will extend to newspapers, television stations, cable systems, radio, all owned by the same voice, by the same people.
And so the question of what the American people hear, see and read is going to come from fewer centers, centers of interest, centers of discussion. And I think that is something that injures our democracy. Will people on the streets be greatly concerned about that? They should be because they have a big interest and a big stake in this decision.
TERENCE SMITH: Senator Byron Dorgan, thanks so much.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Thank you very much.