In push for ‘localism,’ federal rulemakers need to know what we think about our media

Are our local media serving us?


Are they?

A lot of Mainers think so. A very vocal group who turned up at last week’s Federal Communications Commission hearing at Portland High School think not.

The FCC should not be a partisan entity.

The Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated.

The FCC ought to extend its reach to cable programming.

What Americans are regularly subjected to from network programming in terms of offensive humor is a whole lot worse than any wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl.

The public interest has been lost at the trough of corporate media ownership.

The public airways ought to be used in accordance with the public interest. Always.

Big media are bad media.

The above messages were heard loud and clear at the FCC’s hearing, one of a handful being held across the country to collect comment on whether broadcast media are serving local audiences well. The hearing began with critical commentary from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein declaring that, “frankly, the FCC has failed to protect the interests of the American people.”

With the FCC’s own policymakers launching such criticism, it invited a cascade of similar complaints and an equally vigorous defense by local broadcasters who believe they are serving Maine’s population.

Perhaps they are, because Maine people demand and expect local broadcasters to be fair in presenting news, to be on the air providing information during storms and other times of crisis, and to serve the public interest. And, if that doesn’t happen, they don’t complain to each other. They call broadcast stations and flat out tell producers that their use of the public airways carries responsibilities they must abide. It’s national broadcasters that are the real problem.

The Fairness Doctrine was established in 1949, in the infancy of television, when there really were only three broadcast networks. The doctrine required broadcasters to present unbiased information, to air all sides of issues and report fairly and accurately in order to maintain their licenses. Critical public interest was preserved, well before the concept of mega-media conglomerates forming to rule the market.

When the doctrine was lifted in the late 1980s, media expanded and ownership consolidated in earnest. More stations. Fewer owners. Less local programming.

In Portland, Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, – among the first to the podium to express his opinion – begged commissioners not to relax FCC’s rules that limit the formation of super-media outlets in a single market.

“Homogenization is good for milk, bad for media,” Adams said.

The remark earned him a round of laughs and goodly applause. Commissioners even cracked smiles.

This idea that conglomerates, such as Sinclair and Gannett, control sizeable market share means they can – and often do – control information and opinion. Broadcasters are monsters of influence over public opinion, and it’s that control that has so many so concerned.

The hearing was unusual in that commissioners were critical of their own agency’s tilt toward homogenization. Commissioner Michael Copps said he thought the FCC’s public interest obligations have been lost in recent years as media ownership has consolidated. As broadcast owners trim costs and seek efficiencies, programming, information and opinion are being shared more often among sister stations. It’s not quite a one-size-fits-all in big media markets, but it’s coming dangerously close for commissioners’ collective comfort.

Commissioners already – at least in Portland – seem convinced that it would be wrong to relax FCC rules even further, but that it might be past time to bring some enforced fairness back to the marketplace.

“Please,” one woman begged commissioners, “please stop the insanity that’s going on in the media right now.”

In fairness, the insanity is largely market driven. Sensationalism sells, and in a for-profit market, even when delivered on public airways, there is a need to respond to audience demands or the audience will simply move to another market, especially a market that now contains hundreds of – not just three – networks.

So, ask yourself: Are our local broadcast media serving us? Are they?

Whatever you think, now is the time to speak up if you want media in the public interest.

The public is invited to file comment to the commission, and should reference MB 04-233 in doing so. Filing instructions are available at

Judith Meyer is a managing editor at the Sun Journal and, at the invitation of the FCC, testified at the hearing in Portland on June 28.