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A case is winding its way to an inevitable date with the United States Supreme Court, a date, which if prior decisions of this Court are any indication, could end the idea of a truly democratic media that has served as a cornerstone of this country.

The case involves Sinclair Broadcasting, a name that people may recognize from the 2004 campaign, when Sinclair tried to air what amounted to a hatchet job pseudo-“documentary” on John Kerry. Only a nationwide outcry spared Kerry from having Sinclair air something that would have made the Swift Boat ads seem like a minor irritation.

With his usual astuteness, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps identified the danger in Sinclair’s action:

It is proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology.

If you think the Faux Network is a national disgrace and a threat to the venerable traditions of American journalism, Faux has nothing on  Sinclair. Last year the FCC fined Sinclair a slap-on-the-wrist $36,000 for airing programs the featured “I’m only in it for the money” “journalist Armstrong Williams, who had been paid by the Bush Department of Education to hustle No Child Left Behind.

Sinclair is heavily aligned with Faux, with many of its stations serving as Fox affiliates. Over one-third of Sinclair’s stations are direct Faux affiliates, including a large station in Baltimore which already has one Fox affiliate. Another 30% are affiliated with MyNetwork TV, which is owned by Fox Broadcasting Company, a division of Fox News. In other words, almost two-thirds of all Sinclair stations are Fox stations.

This is why the lawsuit is so important. For some years now, Sinclair has been pressuring the FCC to relax its media ownership rules to allow companies like Sinclair to own multiple TV stations in a local market.  Sinclair has also fought many of the big cable giants in attempts to strong arm them into more favorable retransmission agreements.

The most recent Sinclair case dates back to 2002 when the company first challenged the FCC rule allowing ownership of two TV stations in a market only if at least eight independent voices remain. That issue was temporarily put on hold when several years ago, when then FCC Chair Michael Powell proposed to approve an unprecedented level of media concentration.

Key aspects of the FCC’s decision included increasing the 35% limit for TV ownership to 45%, meaning a single company could control almost half of all broadcasting stations and, more important, two companies could control 90%. It also raised the caps on how many local stations could be controlled by a single company and widened the ability of companies to engage in cross-media ownership within a single market.

Commissioner Copps stated the essential case for those who objected:

At issue is whether a few corporations will be ceded enhanced gatekeeper control over the civil dialogue of our country; more content control over our music, entertainment and information; and veto power over the majority of what our families watch, hear and read…Why does any company need to control three television stations in any city? [My underline]…Where are the blessings of localism, diversity and competition here? I see centralization, not localism; I see uniformity, not diversity; I see monopoly and oligopoly, not competition.

The FCC’s ruling in favor of the Powell proposal started a firestorm of protest across the country from both the left and right. Calling the decision “Floodgate,” William Safire wrote:

A single media giant, up to now allowed to own television stations reaching slightly more than a third of the nation’s viewers, will soon – thanks to Floodgate – be able to reach nearly half, a giants step toward 100% ‘penetration.

It did not take long for Congress to take action after being inundated with what is probably the largest public protest in the past few years.  Even though the Republicans controlled the House at that time, the pressure was too great even for them to resist. The final vote of 400-21 stunned everyone with its strong bipartisan support.

Last December the FCC finally got around to reaffirming the old media ownership rule that allows ownership of two TV stations in a market only if at least eight independent voices remain (the so-called eight-voices test).  Whereupon Sinclair again filed suit. Two weeks ago Sinclair was told the case would have to be taken up by the Ninth Circuit in Washington, D.C. where most FCC-related cases are handled. This in turn has precipitated a new round of “court shopping” by both Sinclair and forces who want to keep the December FCC decision.

It is doubtful that the case will reach the Supreme Court for at least a year, meaning that the new President could well have an impact on it if he gets to appoint any new justices early in his term.

Of the issues that will shape the Democratic Party Platform probably none is more important and more ignored than media fairness. If education lies at the heart of our democracy as Thomas Jefferson believed and voting rights is a fundamental issue in desperate need of a twenty-first century overhaul, media fairness is the issue that threatens to render the other two meaningless, for without a free and diverse media our citizens will face the equivalent of Big Brother or the ubiquitous televisions of Fahrenheit 451, a media under the control of a few who view their mission as propagandizing America.

If Ayatollah Academies represent the intent of the Counterrevolution’s education policy, then the Ayatollah media is the inevitable result of their media policy, for the GOP favors a degree of media concentration for this country that would forever end the Constitution’s vision of a free press.

According to its own web site, Sinclair’s television stations reach 22% of all American households in 22 states. According to which source you believe, the company is either the largest or second largest owner of television stations in the United States. Its degree of control has been compared to Clear Channel’s domination of the radio market.  If you couple this with Sinclair’s “alliance” with Faux News, you have a scenario in which the largest owner of television stations in this country airs the biased propaganda of the nation’s first overtly political network.

Meanwhile there lurks the issue of the Democratic Party Platform. On the DNC National web site, media fairness rates barely a mention. If the Platform follows a similar policy of benign neglect along with what has been the current Democratic acquiescence to the Counterrevolution, the idea of an independent media could suffer a severe if not fatal blow.

Let us hope Barack Obama does nor make the same mistake as the Democratic Party. Media fairness needs to be made a central part of the platform for the same reason education and voting rights do–without them we do not have a democracy. Given the unprecedented protest to the Powell decision media fairness could also be a winning issue for the Party. If played right  It could well be the sleeper issue of this election.

The platform needs to above all make clear its belief in the principle of media fairness. It needs to do this in a bold, unequivocal fashion just as with vouchers. The American people have already become cynical about the media, so this will resonate loudly with them and clearly define the differences between the two parties.

In fact if Barack Obama would run on the issue of media fairness alone, he would have a fair chance of occupying the White House a year from now. As the public response to Powell’s proposal indicated, this is one issue all Americans representing a broad spectrum of political beliefs have united around. When Phyllis Schlafly and the National Organization for Women are on the same side of an issue, you know something extraordinary faces this country.

Beyond affirming the principle of media fairness, the platform should include the following:

1) Forbid cross media ownership period.

2) Call for more rigorous adherence to the FCC’s rules on media ownership.

3) Support provisions that will widen media ownership by people of color which has declined during the Bush years.

4) Bring back the Fairness Doctrine, then,

5) Prosecute Faux News.

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