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Committed to the First Amendment 9/30/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Trust but verify

The FCC appears to be leaning toward an antitrust model for merger reviews. If such a change in philosophy does nothing more than speed the process it will be welcome. But it could represent much more than that given the wealth of ownership issues on the horizon. The commission, at the direction of the court, is rethinking its rules of engagement on cable and broadcasting.

Rather than the traditional philosophy of erecting barriers to size and synergy and trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation, the commission is considering looking at mergers on an ad hoc
basis and with a presumption of innocence rather than guilt. That doesn't mean that merging companies would receive a "Get-out-of-merger-review free" card on their way to locking up the marketplace and pocketing the keys to the programming vault. What it means is that the FCC would start taking a page from the merger-review experts, Justice and the FTC, and apply various market-power tests to each merger, including the imposing sounding Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (see story, page 40) to gauge how it would affect overall market concentration.

Whatever model or models the FCC chooses should recognize that media voices have been multiplying like rabbits on Viagra and include the Internet (google.com now searches 1,610,476,000 Web sites), satellite TV, broadcast TV, cable TV and newspapers. There may be reasons to deny media mergers, but a scarcity of outlets of expression is not one of them. The scarcity argument has been rusty and running on empty for decades. Now is as good a time as any to junk it.

Silence isn't golden

OK, enough with the Bill Maher bashing. Clearly our editorial on the subject last week beat around the bush when it should have taken an ax to the root. When we said in last week's editorial that there was a danger that voices of dissent would be pressured into silence in the wake of the terrorist attacks, this is just what we were talking about. The day after Bill Maher said something politically incorrect (hence the title of the show), we heard a very similar observation expressed by academic types on at least two public-affairs programs on a local public radio station with no ensuing hail of criticism. Maher, on the other hand, was yanked from numerous stations, abandoned by some major advertisers, railed at by the White House and forced into damage-control mode. To suggest, as the administration did, that not only is this
not the time, but that there "never" is a time to criticize government policy or to speak against the tide of public opinion, is a bad message to be sending to this country and the rest of the world. If fear turns us into a nation of censors, we will have handed the terrorists some measure of victory.

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