Committed To The First Amendment

The Sixth Vote

Univision/HBC is finally a done deal. Or is it? There was word last week that forces opposing the merger might try to keep the issue alive at the FCC, hoping that it will come back to bite President Bush at election time. There was even talk that they were choosing FCC reconsideration rather than a court challenge not because they thought they had a better shot there, but because, if they lost in court, it would be seen as an official imprimatur for the Bush position. "There are political reasons that may ultimately decide the next course of action," said a lawyer for some of the deal's opponents. That may be the new media-regulation mantra. Or to paraphrase a great philosopher: It ain't over even when it's over.

We recognize that Bush's appeal to Hispanic voters was critical to his election and that anything that divides their loyalties is a gilt-edge invitation to political opponents. Still, we're tiring of media regulation as political football or, in the case of all the back-and-forth of the FCC's ownership rules, political tennis. The internal politics of the issues are unavoidable. Republicans and Democrats on the commission are going to disagree.

But now there seems to be an extra vote that turns the FCC's 3-2 decisions into stalemates after the fact. That extra vote may appear to be the righteous anger of the populace finally given voice. It is certainly an appealing image, but we're not convinced it is more than the effective pushing by a few of the right buttons—or, in some cases, the left buttons—to get the appropriate people lathered up. The effect, certainly in the ownership-rule review, has been to co-opt the FCC's regulatory process and introduce continuing uncertainty for broadcasters.

The majority of the government regulators charged with the decision, after a year of consideration, have concluded that Spanish-language media are not some separate entity that must be protected from itself and that the new Univision/HBC will represent a stronger competitor to English-speaking media, which it sees as a public interest. Given that reasoning, the News Corp./DirecTV deal should be approved on the grounds that DBS is not a separate market from cable and that the resulting company will be a stronger competitor to cable. And it probably will be approved at the FCC. Yet we suspect that this deal too may have to await the sixth vote and it may be a long time coming.

In Harm's Way

We watched and laughed with the rest of the Emmy crowd as Jon Stewart took shots at network journalists, in this case primarily cable, for their occasional missteps and excesses. Most seemed on the mark, by the way. But we were reminded toward the end of the week of the other shots journalists take. The bombing of NBC's Baghdad bureau, in which a guard was killed and a sound technician injured, and the fire directed at an AP photographer in the same city provided sobering evidence of the risks those journalists continue to face in post-war Iraq and wherever the commitment to chronicle events trumps the instinct for self-preservation.