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Politics and Economy:
Transcript: Rick Karr Interviews FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein
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RICK KARR: Commissioner, this story seems not to have been reported very much. Certainly not by the major television networks, or by CNN or Fox News. Does that surprise you, given the magnitude of what's going on, before the commission?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: This is one of the most important things the FCC has ever undertaken. And yet, we see virtually nothing on any of the major media outlets about it, particularly on television. Which is somewhat disturbing.

It raises a real question as whether or not there is independence between ownership and the journalists. There's no better case study that I can think of than this issue in determining whether or not the journalists are able to cover the stories they want to.

Clearly, the owners may have a concern about this going out. And that would be evidenced by the fact that we've seen virtually no national news coverage on this issue.

RICK KARR: Well, to use a highly technical television term, it's not a very sexy story. I wonder if that might play into it, as well, that-- it's not cars crashing. It's not people being mugged. It's not war in Iraq.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: This is a story that affects how every American is going to see, hear, and read about the news. I can think of few things that are more personal to people or more interesting to people than what they get to see on television, or what they get to hear on the radio, or what's in their newspaper.

And these are things that people deal with every day. Every morning people talk about what they saw on television last night, sometimes with excitement, and sometimes with utter disgust.

Now those are things that are talked about around the water cooler. How this issue affects that hasn't yet been translated by the media to the public. And I wonder why.

RICK KARR: Do you have a sense of why? I mean do you honestly think that the owners of the networks have sent word down to the news division saying, "Stay away from this?" Do you think it's self censorship by journalists?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I'm not sure if this is self censorship. But-- it would be very interesting to try to find out. We've heard from a lot of journalists who said they felt very intimidated about doing this story, sometimes explicitly, and sometimes it's implicit.

It's clear to them that it's not a career advancing move to write a story that challenges the policy that is being promoted by their boss.

RICK KARR: You've suggested that there may be an opportunity here for the commission to get testimony from people anonymously-- in order to get around some of these issues of intimidation. How would that work? And what do you think that would offer the commission that you already don't have in the thousands of comments that are on record?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I think it'd be helpful if people could speak to us and be able to have their identity protected, so that they can say, in an unfettered way, what their concerns are, without having any concern about that hurting their career.

I feel right now that journalists in particular are feeling intimidated about it. Which raises a real question about the independence of journalism in this country.

RICK KARR: Is there a difference between the way journalism, news, and information is going to be treated in this rule making, and the way that entertainment is going to be treated? Does the commission weigh one more than the other when you finally make the decisions about how these rules will be changed?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I think it's something that we need to weigh. I think that news and local public affairs coverage are things that we need to look at extremely closely.

Traditionally, the FCC's looked at things like localism and diversity. And we're really looking for viewpoints in terms of how those are expressed. Entertainment's important. But even more important is that people can get local public affairs coverage, and get a divergent viewpoint on that, as well as issues of national concern.

RICK KARR: The networks point to statistics, though. For instance, Fox has said, "Stations that we've purchased over the past few years have actually increased the amount of local news and information programming they provide." Doesn't that suggest that maybe having deep pockets backing a local station can improve the quality of local journalism?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Those are the kind of arguments and discussions that we need to weigh. We need to weigh all the evidence about whether there are actually benefits that flow from economies of scale when companies combine or merge, and whether those benefits outweigh the loss of maybe a different voice in a community.

The large media conglomerates are saying that there are important economies of scale that should be taken into account. And some of the consumer groups argue that those actually lead to the homogenization of coverage, and the "McDonald-ization," if you want to call it, of the kind of news coverage people see. Becomes more generic. Becomes more similar across the country.

Maybe that's a good thing, maybe it's a bad thing. But we better find out before we change the rules. Because once we change them, it's probably too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

RICK KARR: When you talk about "McDonald-ization," you're talking about the idea that there may be more coverage, but that's it's all the same everywhere?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, you know, people love McDonald's. It's great food. But the question is, "Is that what you wanna get every day, every meal?"

And some people don't want it at all. On television, they ought to be able to get a whole array of different choices.

RICK KARR: We've heard a lot so far today that there are way more voices than there were, say, back in the "Golden Age" of television, when there were just three networks and PBS. We've heard other people suggest that that diversity of voices is actually controlled by the same people.

What's your sense right now? Do you think that we've actually have more voices or fewer voices? Or can you really tell yet?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, there are six major national corporations that control the vast amount of what people see on television today. And they also control a lot of the internet portals that people are using, or the internet materials that people access.

What people are looking at remains much more truncated than what it appears, by the fact that there's over 200 channels on television. Even though there's 200 channels, and there's a vast array of things to look at the internet, these are positive things that we need to take into account in this.

The same time, it's only a handful of those entities that are actually producing programming. And they're actually pulling it together for people, so that they can get the news information in a way that makes sense to them, and not have to do their own original research, or be their own editor and their own journalist.

RICK KARR: Chairman Powell has been very adamant about wanting hard data to decide these questions. Hard, quantifiable data. And on the other side, I hear a lot of people saying, "Well, you know, values of democracy aren't necessarily things that are quantifiable."

How do you draw the line between quantifiable data and the more soft notions that may actually determine what's in the best interest for the American people?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: We've gotta get as much hard data as we can on this. We need statistics. We need the numbers. We need to look at what concentration does, and do these studies.

But I don't think that the final analysis, that's the only thing we can look at. We need to look at people's experience in the marketplace. We need to look at the history of what's happened when we've changed the rules and allowed greater concentration.

Do people like, for example, what's happened in the radio business, where Congress took the cap off of how many radio stations a company can buy, and now one company controls over 1,000 stations in this country? Is that something that the public likes?

I mean subjectively, we need to find out. Because there's questions that don't lend themselves to hard data. They're questions of judgment. And the DC Circuit Court of Appeals has charged the FCC with trying to justify its rules with evidence.

And we need to have evidence. But-- historically, the Supreme Court of the United States has determined that it's the role of the FCC to protect the unabridged right of people to hear the free discourse of ideas.

Now we need to look at both of these things. We have a role in not abridging the right of people to hear all kinds of different viewpoints. And how we do that should involve looking at the record, building up a substantive database about what it is and isn't that happens.

But remember, we're predicting the future. What's gonna happen if you change this rule? How can science possibly predict the future? I mean historians can't even agree on what the history of this is. How could we, as a commission, ever say, "WE have the hard data, and there's a science that can say, 'This is what's gonna happen to diversity if you change this rule. This is what's going to happen to localism. And whether or not you can hear in your community about events in your own community, if we allow one corporation to control, say, many more of the television and radio stations in your home town.'"

RICK KARR: It sounds like what you're saying is that on one hand, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals has said, "We need hard data," that the Supreme Court has said in the past, "The commission has the right to set the standards here." It almost sounds like you're hearing two different things from the courts. How does the commission make those two jibe?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, Colliers told us that we're supposed to look at the public interest. That's the charge in law that the Supreme Court has upheld time and again.

And in determining what's in the public interest, the DC Circuit's trying to tell us, "Well, we want hard data. We want you to justify whatever rules you come up with, to say that they're in the public interest."

But what the public interest is is very difficult to quantify. What we have traditionally done is try to look at the diversity of viewpoints in a community, making sure that local events are covered, and making sure that there's competition between different sources of news programming.

How do we quantify that? I mean what is the right number? Congress gave it to the FCC to make it's best judgment about what's in the public interest.

And to the degree that the courts are undercutting what Congress intended, we need to appeal these decisions. We need to take it to the Supreme Court. And we need to make them determine, once again, whether or not their consistent holdings about us having the obligation under law to determine what's in the public interest, are still what they expect of us.

RICK KARR: Much has been made so far today of the fact that there have been about 15,000 comments made to the commission about this rule making process. That's a tiny portion of the American population, though. I mean is that enough to give the commission a sense of what the American people want here?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, we've--gotten, as you say, 15,000 comments, which is a huge number by FCC standards. But there's 250 million people in this country. And every one of them is gonna be affected by what we do on this issue.

So I think we need to get a lot more public input on this. We can't hear too much from the public about what their concerns are. Because these are things that affect their daily lives: what they see on television, what they hear on the radio, and what they see in the newspaper.

We've got to make sure that we get the input from them about what their preferences are. And those need to be weighed in. Because we're supposed to determine what's in the public interest. So we'd better hear from the public in getting to the bottom of what it is.

RICK KARR: Are there likely to be more hearings?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: There are more hearings planned. And I plan to go to every one that we're trying to establish. There's other forums that outsiders are setting up. And we're gonna go to those.

And I think we need to take this on the road and really hear from people outside the beltway, people who don't read the Federal Register, about what their thoughts are on this. And also, people in business, journalists, and people who own media outlets, to hear what their views are from outside the beltway.

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