An opening salvo:
Robert McChesney on democracy, the FCC, and launching a media revolution

We shouldn't be surprised, says media scholar Robert McChesney, that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) didn't side with the American public when it voted on June 2 to loosen rules governing how many media properties one company can own. The decision, dubbed "the fastest, most complete cave-in to big corporate interests" by US Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), fits into the FCC's long history as a "captured" entity working for the benefit of big media. But McChesney says there's hope: the unprecedented outcry against the rule changes—750,000 people flooded the FCC with comments, and after June 2, some 300,000 more contacted Congress—is merely the opening salvo of a new revolution in media activism. The co-author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Our Media, Not Theirs, and others and professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, McChesney spoke with me last Tuesday.

Paul Schmelzer: How do you rate the health of democracy when you consider the recent FCC fiasco? On one hand, FCC chair Michael Powell disregarded some 750,000 public comments overwhelmingly against loosened media ownership rules, while at the same time he and other FCC staffers met with media representatives 71 times. On the other, the elected members of the Senate Commerce Committee jumped in to fight for the will of the people, voting to undo the FCC's decision. How’s our democracy faring?

Robert McChesney: Boy, that’s an interesting question. I think democracy is not healthy at all in the United States, nor has it been in awhile, and it’s certainly not getting better by almost all objective criteria. But, at the same time, you can look at the FCC media ownership debacle as in fact indicating that there might be a resurgence of popular interest, certainly in an area that has traditionally been entirely off limits to the public or public participation. It’s been done in the most corrupt manner imaginable behind closed doors. One can look at what’s taken place in United States in the last six months as extraordinarily hopeful, in that sense, to democracy.

PS: The Commerce Committee stepping in was promising, if unexpected, but the FCC head Michael Powell doesn’t believe he’s in the business of public interest.

BM: The matter is far from resolved. The Senate and the House can overturn what the FCC has done, and the odds aren’t great that they will. Or even if the Senate does so, both the leadership in the House and the White House are dead-set against overturning what the FCC has done. But something could happen in the appropriations committee where a rider is added to a bill to de-fund what the FCC has done to stop it. So it’s very much in play now, certainly as much now as it was before the FCC vote on June 2nd.
What's happened in the last six months is the opening salvo of a whole new wave of political activism around media policy issues, unlike any we’ve ever seen in this country.
So I’d say we shouldn’t be talking in the past tense because we’re right in the middle of it right now and it’s very much up-for-grabs in the next three or four weeks. And even if we are to lose in the coming weeks and the FCC’s decision stands, I don’t think that means everyone just goes back to sleep for another 65 years. I think instead what we can anticipate and should anticipate is that what’s happened in the last six months is the opening salvo of a whole new wave of political activism around media policy issues, unlike any we’ve ever seen in this country, or certainly not in modern history. We should expect that this will be an issue and will remain an issue for the foreseeable future on the stage as a legitimate political issue.

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