It's been 20 years since the FCC's horrid media ownership rule rewrite

Posted by Mitchell - June 2, 2023 (entry 749)

It's an uncanny but helpful coincidence that I chose to send out these newsletters on the second of each month. I did it to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of what became Chicago Media Action, which took place on November 2, 2022. But in the months since, there were/are two other anniversaries of note which also fell on the second of the month: the Media Ownership Forum, which fell on April 2nd, and the FCC's vote to gut their own media ownership rules, whose 20th anniversary is today -- June 2, 2023.

The vote itself was anticlimactic; the FCC voted 3-2 in favor of the media ownership rule rewrite to absolutely no surprise. What was hugely surprising, however, was the subsequent public reaction, which was record-setting, huge, in strong opposition to the rule rewrite, and completely unanticipated even by overly-optimistic media activists. As one CMA member said with delight in the week before the vote: "It's exploding!"

Why was the opposition so big? A full assessment deserves a book-length treatment, but I would posit two main factors: the war and the internet. By "the war" I refer to the 2003 escalation of the War in Iraq (and I say "escalation" because, as a number of antiwar activists correctly say, the war from 1991 never ended). Public support for the escalation of the war was largely driven by the media. Antiwar activists couldn't break through the media blockade, and when word spread (largely via the internet) of what the FCC was planning to do in response, the message had a ready audience.

I submitted an op-ed to the Chicago Sun-Times about the vote timed to publish today on the 20th anniversary of the vote. The Sun-Times didn't publish the op-ed, so I'll share the contents of the op-ed below.


Remember the protests against the FCC

As part of a historic nationwide wave of protests, a number of Chicago activists went to McCormick Place to protest a controversial vote held twenty years ago today.

On June 2, 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3 to 2 to effectively eliminate the nation's remaining media ownership rules. This would have led to billions of dollars of transactions -- which were "cocked and loaded" (to quote the business press) waiting for the vote -- and would have changed for the worse what America saw, heard, and read, on television, radio, and in newsprint.

But that vote was blocked, and I'll explain why shortly. But first, some basics: Why is media ownership an important issue? Why did FCC vote as it did? And what stopped the FCC vote?

Since World War II, America has had rules in place limiting the number and types of media a single company could own, within a community and across communities. The line of thinking was that, just as a diversity of food sources and food types is necessary for a healthy diet, likewise a diversity of media voices is necessary for a healthy polity.

But from 1980 on, the "neoliberal" craze to reassert the primacy of business over life steadily worked to undo most of those rules. Thus, as journalist Ben Bagdikian chronicled in his book "The Media Monopoly" and the six editions that followed, the number of corporations that owned most American media steadily shrank from 50 in 1983 to just five in 2004.

It was more "efficient" for media businesses to produce content once and redistribute across a variety of different media outlets. But there are many negative effects to media concentration: less localism, less journalism, increased commercialism, less independence from the bottom line, more conflicts of interest, fewer diverse perspectives. But who would report this? The media?

Indeed, in September 2002 the FCC announced to almost no coverage that they would rewrite their remaining ownership rules, rendering them inert. Groups of media activists had rallied in response, trying to raise public awareness before the vote. As part of these efforts, a series of ownership hearings were held across America, including one in Chicago at Northwestern University Law School on April 2, 2002.

Curiously enough, those efforts got a boost from the 2003 War in Iraq. Surveys showed that about a third of Americans opposed the war before its launch, but there was nary any media attention of antiwar voices in the months before the war. That frustration brought kindling to a growing fire for media policy reform when word spread of what the FCC had planned (and spread very quickly via the nascent internet).

A record-setting deluge of popular feedback came to the FCC, almost all opposed to its plans. And for the first time ever, the FCC also faced popular protests in a dozen different cities. Chicagoans joined in protest at McCormick Place in early June 2003 at a convention of cable TV's biggest lobby, known then as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). By the way, the chair of the FCC at the time -- Michael Powell -- is now the NCTA's President.

Despite the opposition, the FCC plowed ahead with their vote, but the opposition fueled an emergency court order that blocked the vote and stopped the FCC's plan -- a block that lasted eight years.

It might seem like an eternity ago, in a very different media environment, but it's worth remembering and taking inspiration from what happened. As Illinois media scholar Robert McChesney wrote about the vote and the media ownership uprising of 2003: "[T]he very hardest battle has been won. Media reform is now thinkable. Nothing will ever be the same again."


As to the commissioners who served on the FCC at the time:

  • FCC chair Michael Powell served on the FCC until 2005, and as mentioned above would go on to lead cable television's biggest lobby as the president of the NCTA, a position he still holds today. Powell briefly re-entered the public spotlight when he spoke in 2021 at the funeral of his father, Colin Powell.

  • FCC commissioner Kevin Martin would succeed Powell as FCC chair, and would basically repeat the same mess as Powell did in the FCC's 2007 media ownership rule rewrite. To his credit, Martin took seriously the spanking the FCC got in 2003 and promised six public hearings on the matter across the United States (including Chicago); the FCC wound up holding seven hearings. But the result of all that was thin gruel, irked both lobbyists and humans, and just like in 2003 got slapped down in court. Martin left the FCC in 2005, became a lobbyist at the notorious lobbying firm Patton Boggs, and is now a lobbyist for Facebook.

  • Kathleen Abernathy, whom media activists widely agreed was "an idiot", also left the FCC in 2005, and would go on to serve on the board of the telecom company Frontier, which went bankrupt in 2020. According to her LinkedIn profile, Abernathy currently serves on the board of directors at least four entities, including Dish Network.

  • Jonathan Adelstein, one of the two Democrats on the FCC who also attended many of the National Conferences for Media Reform and is the best harmonica player in the FCC's history, left the FCC in 2009 to head the U.S. government's Rural Utilities Service -- a natural fit for someone from Rapid City, South Dakota. But even Adelstein would go on to be a lobbyist, serving for ten years as the president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, a trade group for a great many cellphone companies.

  • Michael Copps, the leading light on the FCC (who also served as acting FCC chair for nine months), retired from the FCC in 2011. He has since served on a number of nonprofit media policy boards: he served as the special advisor to the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative for the public policy group Common Cause, and also served on the boards of the media policy groups Free Press and Public Knowledge.


In more recent FCC news, Pro Publica is reporting that the FCC has an environmental mandate which it utterly ignores. Also: On the effort to fill the FCC's vacant fifth seat after Gigi Sohn's nomiation got killed by a corporate dark-money campaign, the Biden Administration has nominated corporate attorney Anna Gomez to fill the vacant seat.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.