FCC Chief Defends Changes In Media Ownership Rules
By Peter J. Howe, Boston Globe

CHICAGO -- Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael K. Powell yesterday dismissed as ''garbage'' claims that the interests of the American public went unheard when the FCC last week approved landmark changes allowing further consolidation of media ownership.

In an interview at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association annual meeting here, Powell, who led the Republican majority approving the changes, said he thinks most Americans are unconcerned by the FCC moves. The changes would let one company own a newspaper and television stations in 80 percent of US markets and allow a single broadcasting company to own up to three stations in Boston and five larger markets, as well as VHF stations reaching up to 45 percent of all US households and UHF stations reaching 90 percent.

Leading Democrats and critics of media consolidation have said the changes undermine diversity and local perspective in media viewpoints and were rammed through by the FCC's three Republican commissioners after little public scrutiny.

But Powell said yesterday, ''I don't accept the premise that the public wasn't informed. How is it that you have half a million comments but somehow the public wasn't informed? I have e-mails; I have letters; I have telephone calls. We have a 60-person call center that logged calls all day. We had more public response on this issue than any other issue I've seen in my tenure'' as a commissioner and chairman since 2001.

''That's garbage,'' Powell said of critics' contention that the public was uninformed about the changes and uninvolved in shaping them.

Powell suggested that a ''silent majority'' backed or accepted the changes despite vociferous, organized opposition.

''If members of the public aren't as excited as you or don't care as much as you, it doesn't mean they aren't informed,'' Powell said. While a widely publicized Pew Foundation study showed 70 percent of Americans hadn't read or heard much about the FCC proceeding, Powell said a less publicized finding of the same study showed 57 percent felt they weren't going to be affected much by them. ''You never hear that cited,'' he said.

''There was a really dramatic misunderstanding of the substance of what was at issue,'' Powell said. ''Let's remember, I didn't eliminate one rule'' governing media ownership, but changed the standards for several rules.

Regarding media consolidation, Powell said, ''Everybody has concerns in this, but nobody knows where the lines lie. We just drew the lines'' at new standards, based on orders from federal courts to reconsider the legality of media ownership caps. Broadcast companies challenged the old caps and ban on newspaper-TV cross-ownership, arguing the rules were outdated because of the profusion of cable channels and Internet news and entertainment sources.

FCC commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat, declined to respond to Powell's comments directly. But Adelstein said that ''in a decision like this, you can't have too much public input. It affects every radio listener and television watcher. It affects democracy.''

Adelstein continued, ''In this circumstance, maybe we should have gone to extraordinary lengths because these were extraordinary circumstances,'' adding that he is considering asking the FCC to reconsider the vote, although it is doubtful that Powell or commissioners Kathleen Q. Abernathy and Kevin Martin, both Republicans, will change their votes.