A Night At The (FCC) Opera — Tribune At Center Stage

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

“Yo, Mister FCC! MISTER FCC! MISTER FCC!” The man swinging his hands wildly stepped up to the microphone just after Mr. FCC, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, announced there would be a short break in the public hearing on media ownership rules Thursday night.

The microphone was shut off. “Well I’ll just shout it then,” the man said, as if he hadn’t been all along.

From the back of the cavernous auditorium in Operation PUSH’s national headquarters in the South Side of Chicago, it was hard to make out what he was saying, but it was easy to get his point: He didn’t like or trust the media, and the FCC better not loosen whatever media regulations are still in force.

The little incident encapsulated the long night of the FCC’s fifth of six public hearings: People were passionate, even raucous — and they were deeply skeptical of Big Media and the FCC itself.

And it’s all the media’s fault, to hear the 200 or so citizens who signed up to give two minutes of their opinions to five commissioners.

“To quote Rev. (Jesse) Jackson, we are portrayed as less intelligent than we are, less patriotic than we are, less hard-working than we are, less ambitious than we are — and if you allow more media consolidation, it will be just more of the same,” Ann Bland, an elderly African American, told the commission.

It was a theme that was repeated through the long hearings which started a little after 4 p.m. and wound up at about 12:30 a.m.

“Our culture is being criminalized by the radio stations,” the hip-hop artist KRS-1 said, prompting a standing ovation.

And the idea of letting Tribune Co. own more broadcast stations — let alone greenlighting more acquisitions by the favorite villain, Clear Channel Communications — when minority broadcast ownership is so low was plainly anathema to most of the attendees.

Chicago, according to a recent study by several local universities and media groups, is the third-largest media market, but has the fewest stations owned by people of color. With not quite two-thirds of Chicago’s population belong to racial or ethnic minority groups, people of color own just 5% of TV or radio stations.

“We are being pushed off the dial, and out of the picture — and that’s unacceptable,” Jackson said in a statement read by PUSH Chairman Martin King.

Dotted throughout the crowd were blue-suited men with serious expressions who watched attentively and said nothing.

If they were there to see how sentiment was going to finally end the 1975 prohibition against same-market common ownership of newspaper and broadcast, they couldn’t have left happily. Cross-ownership barely came up at all, except to be attacked by the Democratic FCC commissioners and extolled in perhaps a too-subtle way by the phalanx of Tribune Co. executives and employees who trooped to the microphone.

Chairman Martin, who has spoken publicly in the past about his desire to end the cross-ownership ban, said almost nothing about it Thursday night, remarking only off-handedly that the federal appeals court decision that threw out the FCC’s dramatic rule changes in 2003 actually upheld the end of cross-ownership prohibitions.

For Tribune, long one of the industry’s leading lobbyist for repealing cross-ownership restrictions, the issue is suddenly very urgent. It will need FCC waivers of the prohibition in five of its markets, including Chicago, to complete its deal to go private.

Speaking at an opening panel discussion, Tom Langmeyer, vice president and general manager for Tribune Co.’s WGN Radio, said the long, and grandfathered, common ownership with the Chicago Tribune has strengthened its news coverage. He pointedly contrasted the WGN clear channel stations programming that is hosted live by local people with the syndicated content that characterizes many multiple-station owners.

“If WGN was sold as a result this rule, it would fall into the hands of that kind of company,” he said. “WGN has been strengthened by its historic connection with the Chicago Tribune.”

Later in the evening, a long line of Tribune Co. employees formed at the microphone, including legendary agricultural newscaster Orion Samuelson, talk show host Kathy O’Malley, several executives, and a WGN-TV reporter. At times they sounded like the corporate types recounting their charity work as they hand over a check on the Jerry Lewis telethon.

But other speakers walked up to the mic to slam Tribune for big-footing its hometown market.

Christina Montes, a marketing executive for the Spanish-language weekly El Imparcial complained that the Chicago Tribune was shutting them out of national advertising accounts, alleging it is offering ads in its Spanish-language daily Hoy for free or little cost. They shouldn’t be allowed to grow even bigger in the market, she said.

More people would have told the FCC about the effects Tribune and other media giants have in the Chicago market, but they’re afraid, said Silvia Rivera, general manager of RadioArte, a broadcasting training program run by the National Museum of Mexican Art.

“They’re not saying anything because if you want to get by in this city working in the media, you have to be quiet,” Rivera said. Latinos, she added, “do not own our own media, and we will not own it if more consolidation is allowed.”

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