OAKLAND, Calif. — If media ownership rules are changed to allow even more consolidation, already poor coverage of issues important to racial and ethnic minorities and working-class communities could get much worse, with severe consequences for democracy, speakers warned at an Oct. 27 town hall meeting sponsored by the California NAACP as part of its state convention.

Addressing the forum were the two Democrats on the Republican-dominated five-member FCC, together with panelists and dozens of audience members including representatives of minority and progressive media organizations, leaders of media unions, academics, area elected officials, and concerned members of the public.

In contrast to the Bush administration’s claims that it is promoting democracy abroad, “what we see here in our country is a shutdown of democracy,” Rep. Barbara Lee told the standing-room-only audience. “And that is what media consolidation is all about. In a real democracy, corporations should not control the airwaves.”

Lee’s theme was taken up by the two Democrats on the FCC, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, both of whom oppose further consolidation.

“We see fewer and fewer media companies getting more and more control over the means of distributing ideas,” said Adelstein. “Fewer small businesses, fewer women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans can use the public airwaves to contribute to dialogue, to contribute to the national experience. That’s a tragedy in a country where diversity is really our strength and our opportunity.”

Copps urged the audience to remember that the people own the airwaves. Whatever one’s priorities, he said, “every other issue is filtered through Big Media. Media issues should be your priority Number Two.” The negative effects of consolidation under the present regulations could be intensified if ownership rules are further relaxed, he warned.

Panelists and audience members added their thoughts about consolidation’s impact on coverage of racial and ethnic minorities, availability of children’s programming, and community issues. Several participants pointed out that women and minorities each own slightly over 3 percent of radio and television outlets.

Panelist Tram Nguyen, editor of Colorlines magazine, pointed out that in recent mainstream media coverage immigrants have been compared to “livestock, criminals and terrorists,” while African American residents of New Orleans were portrayed as “looters.” As a society, she said, “we have a distorted and fragmented understanding of what is going on in our country, and sometimes no understanding at all of events in communities that are treated as disposable.”

For journalists of color, coming from marginalized communities, “(ownership) is about having the means to tell our own stories,” Nguyen said, adding that issues such as affordable housing and health care, quality public education and meaningful employment “are rarely covered by mainstream media.”

Representatives from media unions CWA and AFTRA pointed out that the large-scale job cuts accompanying media consolidations have not only devastated employment in the industry but have also drastically reduced diversity of editorial voices in covering stories. In the Bay Area, following its recent purchase of the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times from Knight-Ridder, Denver-based Media News owns most of the region’s newspapers, while the San Francisco Chronicle is owned by the New York-based Hearst Corporation. The Mercury News has said it plans to cut its newsroom staff by about 14 percent.

The FCC is currently reviewing media ownership rules, holding hearings around the country and soliciting public comment. Copps and Adelstein plan more unofficial hearings as well.

In 2003, the FCC’s proposal to further relax the regulations resulted in a huge public outcry and bipartisan opposition in both House and Senate. In 2004, a federal court ruled against most of the proposed changes. Observers point out that ending Republican control of House and Senate would bring new committee leaders who oppose further loosening of ownership rules and could energize forces for more stringent regulation.