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Committed to the First Amendment 9/29/2002 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Margin for error

The FCC is expected to release, in the next week or so, a raft of studies on media ownership calculated to provide the impetus to changes in ownership rules expected sometime next year.

Studies can, of course, serve to justify a planned course of action, and some have suggested that Chairman Michael Powell's course is already set on further deregulation. We don't think he has stacked the deck, although we do believe his predisposition remains to square the regs with the realities of a more populous media marketplace. We just hope the FCC does not put all its stock in those studies, regardless of their conclusions.

The study approach was, in part, a natural extension of Powell's long-standing inclination to take a comprehensive and analytical approach to the FCC's periodic, congressionally mandated reassessment of its regulations. But it is also a more direct response to a bunch of spankings by the courts over inconsistencies and insufficient justifications (the FCC lost six such court decisions in the past five years).

The studies are examining, among other things, whether media concentration affects programming diversity and how well different outlets cover the news. What troubles us is any attempt to devise formulas for what constitutes more-diverse programming or more-balanced or -comprehensive news. Those are just the kind of content calls the FCC should be avoiding, much less trying to base policy on.

It would be ironic, not to mention a troubling precedent, if the price of structural deregulation was further FCC intrusion into program content. The FCC should not get a free pass from the industry for those calls. But, if past is prologue, the First Amendment could well take a back seat to the promise of fewer ownership restrictions

We give the FCC no such pass. We will reserve judgment until the studies are released, but our support for the regulation-by-study method will be in inverse proportion to its attempt to pass judgment on content.

Trust but verify

At the behest of the FDA, whose ban on advertisements of compounded drugs was overturned by the Supreme Court as too broad, the Federal Trade Commission last week reaffirmed its position on commercial-speech regulation, which is that First Amendment protections for commercial speech and "vigorous" consumer protection are entirely compatible.

The FTC makes clear that it will "attack deception" wherever it finds it but also puts a high value on the "free flow of non-misleading commercial information."

So do we.

 

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