Voldemort was about the only villain not invoked last week as reregulatory-minded members of both the House and Senate beat up on broadcasters, suggesting that they were a combination of Saddam Hussein, Stalin and Frankenstein. Even cable got pulled into the debate when Commissioner Adelstein suggested it needed to clean up its programming act, or else.
We were hoping some other story would push this issue off the editorial page, but, alas, such was not the case. In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing and on the floor of the House last week, legislator after legislator took the microphone to fulminate and excoriate. Michael Powell's ears must have been burning, too, as his commission, its policies and his leadership were dragged through the mud, while his 45% ownership cap was rolled back to 35%, at least in the House.
Amid the attacks, it was refreshing to hear Sinclair's Barry Faber stand up to the Commerce Committee rather than pussyfoot apologetically, as so many do, around the generalizations and occasional inaccuracies peppering the bombastic declarations and accusations in such hearings. We don't know how solid Sinclair's case is for the benefits of centralcasting beyond the economics, but Faber gave no quarter in making it, and he did not let some of the Senators' characterizations go unchallenged. We understand that some in broadcasting circles were concerned Faber's feistiness might work against them, but we found it a welcome change. Inquiry is ill-served by obsequiousness. Also on the broadcaster side, WPVI-TV GM Dave Davis acquitted himself well, with an impressive list of public-service initiatives.
Included in the characterizations challenged by Faber were the 2 million ownership comments lauded in the hearing as a "spontaneous" outpouring of opposition to deregulation. There is opposition, to be sure, but vast quantities of those comments were generated by a handful of groups, including the NRA, through form e-mails. Ask the question right and make responding easy enough, and you could get a fraction of one percent of the population (which is what 2 million is) to overturn the Constitution or ban Shakespeare from your local library.
They may not have been spontaneous comments, but they were powerful ammunition nonetheless, and the newly empowered groups behind them are not going away. Witness the ownership-reform conference sponsored by Free Press and its Mediareform.org set for November in Madison, Wis., complete with snazzy convention logo, speeches and entertainment. Then there was last week's e-mail from Moveon.org to its members celebrating the 35% rollback but saying that it was not enough: "The House-Senate appropriations conference won't happen until September. In the meantime, we are working tirelessly to ensure that the Senate is skillfully coordinated and that the House Democrats are unified when this comes back to the floor." Will broadcasters be equally organized? Given their conflicting goals, we tend to doubt it.
Moveon.org and others aren't moving on until they get more than a 35% rollback.