When the Federal Communications Commission was discussing media reforms that would de-regulate the marketplace, some members of the commission said that the public would not care about which media companies could own what or how many local radio stations would be bought out by national ones, according to Commissioner Michael Copps. But if last night’s public hearing on diversity in the media is any indication, the people, as Copps stated, “get awfully damn mad” about regulations that promote consolidation and ethnic homogeneity in an already heavily consolidated, white-dominated industry.

The town hall-style meeting, sponsored by a coalition of Latino media groups, drew 350 community members and media professionals and featured a panel discussion by prominent media figures, including Copps and fellow FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. The two men are the only Democrats on a five-person FCC board dominated by Republican appointees whose efforts to change the regulations to allow for individual corporations to own larger shares of the markets has been fervently criticized by activists concerned with the lack of localism and the minimal presence of people of color on the TV and radio waves. For example, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, a co-sponsor of the event, reports that stories about Latinos or Latino-related issues comprised only 1% of network news coverage.

Juan Gonzalez, a Latino reporter with the New York Daily News, warned that further de-regulation would “make a bad situation far worse . . . We are in real danger of waking up one day with a de facto apartheid situation” with respect to inclusion of people of color in the media, where whites control a disproportionate share of media outlets. New York University professor Arlene Davila echoed that concern. “It is a scandalous fact that Latinos have been relegated to mere consumers, not producers or owners” in the realm of the broadcast media. Members of the public also complained about the lack of diversity and vehemently opposed changing ownership rules during an open-mic session.

The commissioners, who are visiting several cities to tap into public opinion on the proposed changes, connected a free, diverse media with democracy and freedom, an idea seemingly lost on President Bush, who has supported media de-regulation. “These days,” said Adelstein, “we hear a lot about spreading freedom and democracy around the world, but what about improving freedom and democracy at home?” His comment prompted cheers and applause from the audience. Copps asserted that any discussion of policy changes should be conducted out in the open. “We need to make it an open, public process instead of hiding in our office in DC like we did last time,” and encouraged his fellow commissioners not in attendance to do the same. “[The media] belong to you...and now is the time to assert our ownership rights.”

Additional speakers included hip-hop artist M-1 of Dead Prez, Anthony Riddle of the Alliance for Community Media, Marianne Pryor, representing the Writers Guild of America, a New York City Council member, and a representative of the Hispanic AIDS Forum, who criticized the news media for favoring frivolous puff pieces over covering newsworthy matters of life and death and public health.

In 2003, federal courts overturned FCC rules that would have enabled companies to own larger shares of the market, after a wave of public opposition that included groups on both the right and the left. Now, the commission is again considering changes, though it has been dogged with continued protests as well as allegations that reports unfavorable to the new rules proposed several years ago were deliberately suppressed.