Armey takes aim at Belo
House Majority Leader vows to continue trying to break up grandfathered Dallas combo
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/13/2002 8:00:00 PM
Retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) is trying to force Belo to divest itself of one of its Dallas media properties, taking a page from an earlier attempt by legislators to break up a media conglomerate they didn't like.
Armey's parting shot and his spokesman's suggestion that "several" other members expressed concerns about crossownerships raise questions about the FCC's ability to remove those restrictions in local markets. The commission is widely expected to eliminate or relax crossownership restrictions it imposed in 1975—a move Belo is pushing for—but concerned lawmakers could put up resistance. Already, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) is an avowed opponent of the idea.
The Belo-owned Dallas Morning News last week wrote a story suggesting that Armey had targeted the company in retaliation for its coverage of his son's failed attempt to capture his House seat.
Armey responded that the charge belonged "on the editorial page," and spokesman Greg Crist added that "the Scott Armey news coverage is an example of why the Armey amendment is necessary, but it was not its cause."
Crist conceded that Belo was the target but only because it was the only such "monopoly" in Armey's district. Armey "believes companies have a responsibility to provide fair and unbiased coverage where competition doesn't exist." He said Armey is concerned about what he feels is Belo's dominance of the market and wanted to "send a message."
That message, which Armey tried unsuccessfully to insert into a $10 billion military-appropriations bill, would have forced Belo to sell the News, WFAA-TV Dallas or The Denton Record-Chronicle. Crist said the Majority Leader will look for other venues for it.
The move was reminiscent of another attempt by lawmakers to add language to a big spending bill to strip an owner of a crossownership waiver.
In 1988, Hollings, at the behest of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), inserted language into a spending bill forcing Rupert Murdoch to sell the Boston Herald and New York Post (B&C, Jan. 4, 1988). That effort was said by some sources to have been prompted by Kennedy's dislike of Herald editorial policy, although the senator's office dismissed that as "absurd." The amendment was thrown out as unconstitutional by a Washington appeals court but not before Murdoch sold the N.Y. Post to comply (he eventually bought it back).
In 1974, President Nixon's Justice Department asked the FCC to deny license renewals of broadcast/newspaper combos in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Des Moines, Iowa.
Although the proposed Armey amendment did not name Belo, it did everything but. It would have required the FCC to force divestiture where "a media company owns, in a single market, a network-affiliated TV station; a predominant newspaper with Sunday circulation of 750,000 or more that doesn't have a competitor with a Sunday circulation exceeding 350,000; and a second daily newspaper with Sunday circulation of 25,000 or less."
Said Belo Chairman Robert Decherd, "There is no substantive reason or explanation for this unprecedented action. His misuse of congressional leadership powers for personal retaliation toward Belo is not in keeping with the positive results Congressman Armey has produced for his constituents during his long tenure as a member of the Texas congressional delegation."
Armey's amendment might have made it further had Waco, Texas, Democrat Chet Edwards not flagged it. A source says his office got wind of the amendment when a House military construction appropriations subcommittee staffer noted the targeted language and asked if it applied to anyone in Edwards's district.
The Morning News said in its story that, after Scott Armey's April 9 run-off loss for his father's seat, the senior Armey accused the paper of "vicious unprofessionalism" and has since refused to talk to the paper or WFAA-TV about the defeat.
The paper had written several stories raising issues about Scott Armey's record as a Denton County judge, including what they said were votes for contracts benefiting political friends and steering money to a charity he was "close to."
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