WASHINGTON - To some political analysts here, the remarkable fact about today's Federal Communications Commission media decisions was not their deregulatory sweep but that so much public outcry had been mustered against them.
After all, today's actions were high on the agenda of the F.C.C.
Michael K. Powell, supported by the Republican leadership of the
House and Senate
and by the White House and given momentum by the near-perfect
alignment of industry lobbyists.
But compared with 18 months ago, when the dry details of caps, cross-ownership and market contours were almost exclusively debated by corporate lawyers, the F.C.C. staff and the federal courts, the public had recently rallied to the issue - in strident opposition.
More than 520,000 comments on the proceeding were sent in by citizens. And as the two dissenting commissioners pointed out in their statements today, nearly all of them were against relaxing the media ownership rules.
While the public opposition did not dissuade Mr. Powell and his two Republican colleagues on the commission from voting in favor of the rule changes, some consumer advocates say the protests may have helped set some boundaries - like the slight tightening of radio ownership rules - and could prove useful as some members of Congress seek to roll back the F.C.C.'s actions and opponents mount appeals in federal court.
The public outcry was in part a result of a fervent cross-country campaign to stop the rule changes by Michael Copps, a Democratic F.C.C. commissioner. With critics of the proposals tending to portray them as a gutting of all of the media ownership rules - rather than a relaxation - the public almost intuitively rose up against the F.C.C.'s plans.
Playing a major role in spreading the populist message were four longtime consumer advocates, working in tandem, with a deliberate division of labor.
One was Gene Kimmelman, the Washington director of Consumers Union, who focused his attention on galvanizing Congress. A former Senate staff member, Mr. Kimmelman has focused on trying to stimulate bipartisan support for legislation to reinstate the rule that prevents a network from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's viewers - a limit that the F.C.C. raised today to 45 percent.
Andrew Schwartzman, the director of another public-interest group, the Media Access Project, had responsibility for lobbying the F.C.C. The number cruncher was Mark Cooper, a research director for the Consumer Federation of America, whose economic analysis of the various media markets at issue in today's proceeding was sharply at odds with the F.C.C.'s own assessment of the diversity of voices in the media. Where the F.C.C. diversity index placed only limited value on the size of a media outlet's audience, Mr. Cooper and his staff gave heavy weighting to audience "voice count."
The message man was Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, whose job was to make the news media aware of his groups' positions. Rarely meeting in person, but keeping in touch with one another through e-mail exchanges and phone calls, the four conducted a surprisingly effective public message campaign in the view of Blair Levin, a former F.C.C. staff member who is now a media analyst at the investment firm Legg Mason.
"It was a very impressive display," said Mr. Levin, who noted the large number of e-mail messages from the public.
Of the six regulations that were changed, only the national television ownership limit pitted one industry group, the major broadcast networks, against another - local affiliate stations.
In the other cases, the public interest groups found themselves facing off against a largely unified media industry and some of the largest Washington lobbying firms, including Skadden Arps (whose clients included Fox, NBC/Telemundo, Viacom, and Radio One); Hogan & Hartson (which represented the radio giant Clear Channel Communications, Fox Broadcasting, Disney, Viacom, as well as the studios Fox, MGM, Sony, and Vivendi); Covington Burling (lobbying on behalf of Microsoft, as well as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC television network affiliate associations), and Wiley Rein & Fielding (whose many clients include the Gannett and Belo newspaper holding companies, and Clear Channel).
"It's a few public-interest lawyers and researchers versus an army of Washington lobbyists," Mr. Kimmelman said.
Despite the prospect of further action in Congress and appeals in federal court, Mr. Kimmelman's colleagues were far from declaring victory today. In the end though, only three votes mattered. "We won public opinion and we still lost," Mr. Schwartzman said. "We got whomped today."