Editorial: Away Game

Democrats were piling on FCC chairman Julius Genachowski
in absentia last week. The chairman was away in Dubai trying
to help the U.S. delegation defend the forces of Internet openness
against encroaching government control, an issue in the
international realm that carries that rarest of D.C. commodities:
bipartisan support.

But the pile-on was on the media-ownership
front, where the chairman is attempting to
loosen (but not lift) a ban for some (but not all)
broadcast/newspaper combos. Back home in
Washington, that news was being treated as a
threat to the health and safety of both children
and puppies.

Only threatening to trade Redskins star quarterback
Robert Griffin III could have produced a
similar outcry from Senate Democrats, minority
groups and communications unions for what are
limited moves that still leave all the local ownership
caps in place, and even boost local ownership
limits by making some joint sales agreements
subject to those local caps.

This page is not ecstatic with the proposal
either because it leaves some of the cross-ownership
limits in place (ironically, the ones in smaller
markets, where stations and papers are more in
need of combining their investments in news and
information in order to preserve their voices).
But this relentless attack on the chairman—as
though the item was some covert, surprise attack
on diversity—is off-base.

Here are some loaded “Have they stopped
beating their wives?” questions from a transcript
of an interview between Bill Moyers, a veteran
Big Media critic, and consolidation critic Craig
Aaron of Free Press, which has threatened to sue
the FCC again if it proceeds with the ownership
rules change.

Moyers: “What does it say to you that the chairman
of the FCC is running a secret process that
would, in effect, gut media-ownership limits?”

And then there’s one about the chairman’s
circulation of the item for a vote last month.
Moyers: “Why the rush?”

Secret process? Really? The FCC issued a notice
of proposed rulemaking a year ago, signaling its
plans. There has actually been voluminous comment.
“Rush?” The FCC has been working for five years, on and off, to come up with a new
proposal, and it is two years late on its quadrennial
review of its rules, to which the ownership
item is responsive, as well as to a court remand.

We will concede that the FCC would have
been wiser, politically, to complete independent
diversity studies before making its proposal,
rather than relying on broader media-ownership
studies and its biennial state of ownership report.
But we understand the delay in the studies may
have been a matter of funding.

In any event, two former FCC chairmen—Democrat Reed Hundt and Republican Michael
Powell, the first African-American chairman—are on the record as conceding they both thought
the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban
should be scrapped, but weren’t about
to run afoul of Congress and that
body’s fears of the increased power of
more powerful broadcasters in their
home districts and states.

So here are members of Congress
weighing in again, warning the FCC
not to vote the item, and in one case
even threatening a congressional resolution
of disapproval if it proceeds.
The initial criticism was about openness
and transparency, but that one
is a hard sell. Then it was failure to
vet the impact on diversity. That has
more legs, but still falls short. Then it
morphed to an early Christmas present
for Rupert Murdoch to potentially buy The Los
Angeles Times
or Chicago Tribune. But that doesn’t
really work either, since the FCC is presuming that
a top-four station and a major paper would not
be in the public interest, even in the top 20 markets
where it is lifting the absolute ban. Yes, maybe
the Fox station in one of those markets is ranked
No. 5, and the deal might be easier under the new
rules, but if so, maybe it should be allowed.

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn has secured
an extra 30 days of comment on the diversity report,
which effectively pushed a vote on media ownership
to early next year at the soonest.

It has been more than a decade since then-
FCC chairman Powell tried to loosen the regulations.
Even by then, the marketplace had become
much more competitive. Now, the game
has changed entirely with over-the-top video,
tablets, smartphones and online Web news operations
pulling down Pulitzers.

It would be a shame if the media flat-earthers
who refuse to see the new marketplace as it is
won the day.