Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/13/2002 8:00:00 PM
Armey on the attack
It was déjà vu all over again last week. In 1988, as the FCC was considering whether to jettison the newspaper/broadcast crossownership rules, a powerful legislator slipped a provision into an omnibus spending bill that would have forced the breakup of a grandfathered major-market combo. The reason, or so the word on the street went, was that another legislator didn't like what the paper was printing. Fast forward to last week, and virtually the same scenario was playing out (see story, page 22).
The crucial difference is that, in 1988, Sen. Ernest Hollings, working with Sen. Ted Kennedy, succeeded in getting the measure passed (although it was eventually ruled unconstitutional), whereas, last week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey was discovered and the effort foiled, at least for now. That's the good news.
The bad news is that, remarkably, Armey vowed not to give up his attempt to force Belo to sell off either WFAA-TV Dallas or one of its two papers. He cited its dominance of the market in general but used as an example what he said was a vendetta against him conducted through coverage of his son's failed attempt to succeed him. Fortunately, Armey's salvo is a parting shot. He is retiring, so his time is limited, and his chances slim to none.
Still, it was a bit too close for comfort, made more uncomfortable by the suggestion out of Armey's office that a number of other members—they wouldn't name names—had registered similar complaints about newspaper/broadcast crossownerships. Our first instinct is to say, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," but we've seen too many strange things not to warn broadcasters to be on their guard.
The Wall Street Journal last week called Michael Powell an "IHOP waffle" when it comes to deregulation. Well, there was no waffling last week, and no deregulation, either. The Powell FCC slammed the door hard on the EchoStar/DirecTV merger. It was unanimous and included language like "staggering public-interest harms" balanced by benefits that were at best ephemeral and speculative and at worst nonexistent.
It's lonely out on this limb, but we are staying here. The government has long been whining about competition to cable, but, when it has an opportunity to do something about it other than fulminate over its misreading of cable rate increases, suddenly creating a stronger competitor to cable becomes the public-interest equivalent of unleashing King Kong on a defenseless populace. Hardly. It would rather allow a new 800-pound gorilla to go toe to toe with the others, which we would argue include cable, traditional broadcasters and someday possibly a terrestrial service in the DBS band.
The FCC may be short on waffles, but we think they have some egg on their faces.
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