News Archive: February 2003
2/27/03 - White House Spokesman Laughed Out of White House Press Room [link to this story]
This is just too good: if you visit CSPAN.org right now, and check out the center column marked "most watched video," you can see that Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer's Feb. 25 press briefing sits at the top of the list. The reason is due to the last three minutes of the half-hour video.
It involves a spate of tough questions which end in Fleischer's rhetorical de-pantsing. As expected, the questions come from representatives of the "foreign media."
The topic of interest is a reporter's pointed probe of U.S. efforts to buy votes on the UN Security Council for authorization to begin Gulf War II. The particular journalist nailing Fleischer cites stories in the French press - which confirm through two separate sources in the U.S. State Department - that American diplomats are whipping out the Treasury checkbook and asking, quite pointedly, "how much for your vote for war?"
After failing to deflect the question - twice - Ari tries what results in a terminal spin: putting on a concerned face, he scolds the reporter. "But think about the implications of what you're saying. You're saying that the leaders of other nations are buyable. And that is not an acceptable proposition."
The journalists positively explode with laughter. After a terse "thank you," Fleischer exits stage right. Indeed, as the C-SPAN cameras continue to pan around the press room you can hear a man's voice bubble up through the journo-chatter, in a semi-amazed tone: "laughed off the stage."
This will definitely not make the news in the States. (Actually, the Fleischer quote has been reported, in some Knight-Ridder newspapers and elsewhere, but if you didn't know its context its meaning would seem completely different.)
In case the video drops off the CSPAN "most watched" list, here is a direct link. Skip to about the 28-minute mark for the meat.
2/25/03 - FCC Gives Public A Last-Minute Listen? Don't Believe the Hype [link to this story]
It's enough to make you puke: the FCC has released its agenda for the one and only "official public hearing" it will hold on its pending revisions to media ownership rules. Check it out in text (page 1, page 2) or .PDF (page 1, page 2) format.
After the corporate media belatedly began covering the issue (publishing its first stories on the weekend after the written public comment period officially closed), and after an outburst of concern from Congress over the FCC's foregone conclusions (bigger media is better), FCC Chairman Michael Powell responded like the savvy politician he is. In a symbolic display of civic engagement he agreed to convene the Commission for one "public hearing" in Richmond, Virginia - a whopping 100 miles from Washington, D.C.
While one Commissioner (out of 5) has agitated for a nationwide tour of the country to gather a better sampling of public opinion, Mikey Powell cited the bad economy and a need to constrain the FCC's travel budget as the reason for picking Richmond. He also claimed that, since a "record" number of written public comments were filed on the actual rulemaking proceedings themselves, actually *speaking with people* would be redundant.
In case anyone hasn't gotten the hint by now, Mikey Powell and the FCC really doesn't WANT to hear from the public on the issue of media ownership. Chances are, they wouldn't like what they hear. It's much easier for Mikey & the FCC to deal in the colder, more abstract world of economic formulae and paper correspondence between "constituencies" than it is to actually engage the public which makes up that "public interest, convenience and necessity" they were chartered to uphold.
Which brings us back to this singular public hearing, slated to take place on Thursday (Feb. 27). It is a marathon six-hour session; sounds pretty good, right? Should be able to pack quite a bit of public input into those six hours.
Think again. The "hearing" has become a "forum," with an hour-long introductory performance, three 50-minute panel discussions and an hour for lunch. The panels are packed with "experts" - scholars, media executives, professional journalists, and inside-the-Beltway public interest advocates (read: lobbyists with consciences). In other words, these are the same people that have been discussing the issues of media ownership among themselves the whole f*cking time, mostly in private.
For public benefit they will be paraded in front of an audience in Richmond to pontificate and "debate" the FCC's media ownership work and its impact, which I'm sure will be quite lively (each panel contains at least one representative from the two constructed sides of the argument: more vs. less regulation).
In between each panel, the audience will get 30 minutes of open-mic time.
Just from a mathematical standpoint, the fact that only 90 minutes of this six-hour event is actually devoted to public comment sucks large ass and says a lot. It also validates a view I've held throughout this whole farce - that it is a farce.
Folks, I hate to be a party pooper here, but the FCC committed to the changes it will make to the media ownership rules before this whole rulemaking even got rolling. The recent and sudden outburst of publicity and faux attention is window-dressing to give the changes a sense of legitimacy. This is why you haven't seen much coverage of it here.
The fact that the public, in some substantive way, responded to the news, I think, caught the FCC off-guard. It sure as hell did Congress, who immediately convened hearings of their own so as to have a forum to mouth platitudes of concern over the FCC's corporate-friendly leanings. Keep in mind that it was Congress who set the FCC whinging off in this direction in the first place back in 1996. Reap what you sow.
Let us also not forget that Congress and big media have a vested interest in each other. There is no way in hell Congress will upset the apple cart it has so carefully filled through financial symbiosis (congresscritters need money for campaigns, media corps donate heavily to them, and the money flows back to the media thru political ads during election seasons).
"Holy sh*t," said Washington. "We better act like we care." What you will see and hear on Thursday in Richmond is the climax of this process. We will be told stories about how media ownership regulation is both good and bad. Two sides will argue in a civil manner. The motions of discourse will be gone through, which will satisfy the veneer of a democratic process.
Citizens, that ubiquitous "public" the policy makers and wonks always talk about, will say the least, again. Once the show is over, it'll be back to business as usual.
When the rule changes are officially handed down, they will be, for the most part, what big media has been hoping for and working toward over the last several years: a marketplace pretty much allowed to run free, relieved of all substantive burden of actually serving a public interest. We'll see further industry consolidation and decimation of the potential for democratic discourse of, by, and for the people themselves. After all, we're only consumers now.
Sure, they will not be in the exact form as they've been pre-conceived, but the revised media ownership rules will have essentially the same function. What changes that are made out of deference to public input will be either cosmetic or provisional: the FCC recently launched an internal project to devise an economic formula that will somehow quantify diversity, localism and access in/to media markets. Yeah, math's the ticket out of our woes!
Things are going to get much worse before they get better in our mythical marketplace of ideas. And we've kind of passed the point of no return here; the answer to this dilemma no longer lies in D.C. It is pretty much a lost cause to devote more time and energy into what happens there.
I suspect when the actual damage is done lots more people will come to this realization. Further alienation will spark action, direct and indirect. This is a good thing, but it'll take quite some time to regain what we're about to lose. Might as well get a head start on the work.
2/19/03 - Free Radio Networks Against War [link to this story]
Last weekend's global anti-war protests were streamed live by various Independent Media Centers around the world, and voices for peace bypassed corporate media filters to give reports straight from the streets.
Many pirates picked up the various IMC feeds and rebroadcast them to their communities: the impromptu network had affiliates the U.S., U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, to name those we know of. All of the rebroadcasts took place on the FM dial. Could've been bigger - maybe next time.
Miscellaneous site news: a third gallery of media collage is now online. This one features works that use adverts as ammo and poke the eyes of consumer culture.
2/12/03 - Clear Channel Watch: Ramping Up D.C. Presence, Pressure [link to this story]
Clear Channel's D.C. lobbying arm grows from one to three as chief corporate glad-hander Andrew Levin entices two more away from the Hill. The expansion buys Clear Channel valuable access to key members of Congress, which should help smooth over the company's image problems and increase the company's influence on media lawmaking.
Robert Fisher comes straight from Arizona Senator John McCain's backyard, having worked on McCain's most recent re-election campaign in 1998. That earned him a place on McCain's D.C. staff as the Senator's media issues adviser. With Clear Channel's purchase of Fisher, the company has all but installed a direct hotline to McCain's ear on telecommunications policymaking. It's almost as good as buying McCain himself.
Brendan Kelsay was the guy who took Levin's old job: advising the House Commerce Committee's Democratic members on media policy.
Related development: Clear Channel President/COO Mark Mays recently spammed the company with an interesting memo. Under the guise of praise for the Clear Channel's collective coverage of the recent space shuttle accident, Mays fills everyone in on he and Lowry's "interesting experience" in Washington:
Included in the political update is a plea to employees - please write members of Congress yourself and tell them how wonderful a company we really are. Instructions follow:
The phrase "say Feingold is wrong" is worth noting, as it is a direct request for all letter-writers register opposition to Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's pending "Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act." That bill targets Clear Channel for the way the company has leveraged its radio stations to wring more money out of concert promoters and record labels.
It will be interesting to see if campaign donations from the company begin surging as well. Clear Channel's political action committee, listed as "Eller Media" on opensecrets.org, has raised more than $264,000 in the last year.
2/11/03 - Microbroadcaster Gets 4 Months Home Detention [link to this story]
Benjamin Leroy Carter once ran a station in Orlando, Florida. After "complaints from residents and broadcasters...of interference to the reception of licensed radio broadcast stations," the FCC swooped in. The good news is it took nearly four years for the agency to follow through.
The actual sentence - after pleading guilty to seven counts of unlicensed broadcasting - was 18 months' probation (of which four are home detention) and 50 hours of community service. Sounds like the FCC didn't think they'd be able to squeeze dough out of Carter, who becomes (to our knowledge) the second microbroadcaster to be criminally convicted and sentenced for broadcasting without a license.
2/10/03 - Viacom Wants Insurance to Cover Lost 9/11 Ad Revenue [link to this story]
The January 13 issue of Broadcasting & Cable magazine reports that Viacom - parent company of the CBS and UPN television networks, Infinity radio conglomerate, Paramount Pictures, and a bevy of cable-TV channels, among other properties - has filed a claim with its insurance company seeking $200 million in compensation for lost advertising revenue due to the 9/11 attacks on NYC and DC.
You may recall (with a pleasant, warm feeling) that for a brief few days following the attacks the major networks (both broadcast and cable) went ad-free with wall-to-wall news coverage and docudrama. The common wisdom at the time was, within the broadcast industry, that running adverts during a time of national crisis was in bad taste.
That was then - this is now.
Viacom is seeking to claim the lost ad revenue under the "business-interruption" policy it has. This type of insurance is typically used to cover expenses incurred by companies that would normally put them out of business. In broadcasting, such policies most commonly cover actual broadcast facilities (transmitters, antennas, towers, etc.).
According to Broadcasting & Cable, Viacom claims it had no choice but to yank the ads, citing its FCC-mandated "public interest obligations" that come with the licenses to the 39 television stations and 180+ radio stations it owns. It deserves note that the government did not actually force any media outlet to pull advertising from the air.
When I first read this, I thought of Dan Rather, leaning on the shoulder of David Letterman as he broke down from the stress of covering the calamity during a post-9/11 cross-promotional appearance on The Late Show (both Rather and Letterman are CBS products). Now I wonder if those tears were real, or whether he was reflecting the mood of the Viacom boardroom when they hit the calculators to find out how much their spasm of "public interest obligation" cost them.
Of course, I doubt any of Rather's paychecks bounced because of this.
As with most unflattering news about corporate media machinations, this story appeared and disappeared almost immediately: outside of Broadcasting & Cable (an industry trade rag), it has surfaced in one NY daily tabloid and on a right-wing web site which managed to contort the facts to fit its misguided claptrap crusade on the "bias" of the "liberal media."
Heaven knows, when we start slinging explosives at Iraq en masse we'll see the fireballs and tracer sparkles bracketed by lots of spots, as war is great for business.
2/7/03 - Collage Gallery Expanded [link to this story]
Notables skewered in the new section include Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, among many others. I especially like Rush Limbaugh's tribute to fascism and Paul Harvey's ode to his bong.
There will be more galleries to come in the coming weeks as the media collage section gets more fleshed out. Spread the joy of open source music far and wide!
2/4/03 - Miscellaneous Piracy Afoot [link to this story]
Some scene reports to share:
Steamboat Springs, CO - "We went on the air about 9 PM Friday (1/30) and took things down at 11 AM Sunday (2/2). The X-mitter was a North Country MPX-96 feeding 2 modified and filtered Radio Shack HTX-10 amplifiers in series. Power out was ~30 watts into a wire 1/2 wave dipole on the balcony of a 2nd story ski-in/ski-out condo about 500 vertical feet above town and 200 feet above the base of the resort. Coverage was excellent as you could imagine. Covered downtown and the whole resort area, didn't drive far enough to lose the signal. Oh, and the snow was OK, skiing great, and weather WARM."
Boulder, CO - There has been some sort of split within the Boulder Free Radio organization. Most of the station's founders are now working on an internet-only radio station presumably called "Real Public Radio." New folks now have the transmitter; their intentions are unknown.
Cleveland, OH -
Grid Radio founder Jerry
Szoka has been served the court papers demanding he pay his $11,000
fine. Szoka pretty much exhausted his court appeals almost
exactly one year ago. In an email to a mailing list about being served:
"It would seem that I am screwed." The station's website has
2/1/03 - "Nonsense on stilts": D.C. Appeals Court Upholds Anti-Pirate LPFM Ban [link to this story]
More depressing news from our so-called "justice" system: the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the "no-pirates" clause in the FCC's LPFM rules. The clause was challenged by Greg Ruggiero, a member of the former Steal This Radio collective in New York. A three-judge panel of the the same court initially declared the blanket exclusion unconstitutional about a year ago. The FCC petitioned for a re-hearing of the case in front of the full bench, which was granted - leading to the reversal of the previous decision yesterday.
After rejecting both primary arguments articulated by Ruggiero and the FCC against and for the anti-pirate clause, the court struck out on its own path to denying the challenge to the ban. Ruggiero, in part, argued that many other individuals and entities licensed by the FCC have been found guilty of worse crimes than radio piracy. Therefore, Congress' late-2000 passage of the "Radio Broadcasting Protection Act," which overrode the FCC's original rule and banned pirates completely and permanently from the new service (the FCC originally granted unlicensed broadcasters a limited window of amnesty under which to apply for an LPFM license) was unconstitutional.
The court didn't buy it, to put it mildly. "This is nonsense on stilts," wrote Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg. In his view, Congress has the necessary authority to modify a government agency's regulations in order to keep lawbreakers from benefiting from their actions. Basically, Ginsburg's reasoning goes, all pirates have already violated the Communications Act by broadcasting without a license, so why should they deserve special treatment from the FCC?
A great example of twisted logic follows: "Not only are murderers, rapists, child molesters, and the like not particularly associated with the harms caused by unlicensed broadcasting, the harms that these malefactors do cause are not without other and more severe penalties (state or federal) than ineligibility for an LPFM license." Later on, Ginsburg writes, "The judgment that one offense is more serious than another, like the judgment that a punishment of a certain severity is warranted for a particular offense, is not for the judiciary to make."
It is here where the entire decision seems to break from reality. First, Ginsburg assumes that Congress' decision was rational and carried out with prudent thought, based on quotes from the floor speeches given by the sponsors of the "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act" - Representative Michael Oxley (R-OH) and Senator Rod Grams (R-MN: voted out of office the same year, in part because of his decision to sponsor this legislation).
However, it's important to recognize the context in which those words were spoken. In the 2000 election cycle, Oxley received more than $10,000 from broadcast interests opposed to the FCC's LPFM legalization effort; Grams raked in a similar amount for his sponsorship of the bill. These are only the donations that are immediately identifiable, and exclude contributions from individual broadcast industry executives and lobbyists. The court also ignored the context in which the bill was approved - as a last-minute rider attached to a larger package of federal budget legislation - was also ignored by the court.
The blanket ban on unlicensed broadcasters from participation in the LPFM service was not even germane to the issues behind the "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act" itself, which was to address the FCC's "erroneous" judgment in relaxing interference protection standards to allow more stations on the FM dial. Kicking microbroadcasters in the ass was an afterthought of the broadcast industry, a value-added service to be provided by politicians already bought and paid for.
Then there is the selective presentation of facts involved in the discussion of the case itself: the court's background review of the issue references interference caused by unlicensed broadcasters to aircraft and public safety radio frequencies. None of the examples are cited from a specific case, and many of these types of interference cases involve amateur radio or citizen's band (CB) broadcasting. CB and ham signals cause interference in forms and conditions where FM signals would not pose any problems. Apples can indeed be oranges. Even more appalling, the interference problems attributed to pirate activity are then used to explain, in part, why the FCC created an LPFM service. If the pirates are so bad, why would the FCC move to legalize their activity? What part of this logic am I missing?
(For the record, there have been at most two publicly-confirmed cases of unlicensed FM broadcasters causing interference to the radio services discussed here, and both occurred several years ago. The problem is not as widespread as the court would like to believe, especially with regard to unlicensed FM broadcasting.)
The FCC itself engaged in a bit of truth-twisting when it argued in its brief that pirates applying for an LPFM license would've been rejected anyway even without a ban in place, based on the FCC's "general character qualifications" for license-holders. This is patently false: there are documented instances in the past where former FCC rule-breakers have gone on to get broadcast licenses. The character qualification issue is presented as a clear-cut standard the FCC applies equally in all licensing decisions; the truth is different.
Answer me this, oh learned D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals: if the FCC was initially willing to allow unlicensed broadcasters into the LPFM fold, then does that make the limited amnesty awarded by the FCC's original LPFM regulations somehow unlawful? Could it might possibly be that, in this instance where the agency has expertise (technical and otherwise) in the field that the court cannot even begin to comprehend, it recognized that the scope of the law - its own enabling statute, to be exact - was not as cut-and-dried as you would like to believe?
Of course, the lawyers will say, it is not the place of the court to consider such factors when ruling on matters of law. I say that's bullshit. This case is a perfect example of how the corrupting influence of corporate interests on one branch of government has effects far wider than we realize. Thanks to this decision, the pirate ban in LPFM has been legitimized - we all know it was a raw deal, born from back-handed dealings in a closed-door legislative proceeding. This no longer matters; the injustice is final now.
Others have said it before, but I must say it again: a law carries maximum effect only if it is a just law. This is an unjust law. Protest against an unjust law is the last refuge for change in such situations. It is what enables protest with moral authority. If anything good comes from this decision, that moral authority has been strengthened for microbroadcasters.
Even though the decision was 7-1, two judges felt compelled to issue their own statements concurring with the majority. Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph opines that Ruggiero and his attorney have so badly misinterpreted constitutional law that they don't have a valid premise on which to challenge the pirate ban; Circuit Judge Judith Rogers dismisses Ruggiero's challenge based primarily on the grounds that he never attempted to work through the FCC's (nonexistent) administrative process and exhaust his options before pursuing a court challenge.
Finally, we hear from the lone voice of reason on the panel, Circuit Judge David Tatel, whose dissent is quoted nearly intact:
I'm not sure whether a petition to the Supreme Court is in the works (or whether it is even possible in this case). As it stands, there has been no public declaration by the litigant to do so.