Hill, Activists Are Cross About Cross-Ownership Move

FCC Gets Backlash from Several Sources After Vote

Democratic and media activist criticism of the Federal Communications Commission's decision to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban was swift and pointed. They didn't like it and didn't see it as the modest compromise FCC chairman Kevin Martin suggested it was.

The move's chief critic was Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), who has backed biills first to try to block the vote, and now to nullify it, as he tried to do with the 2003 FCC media ownership rule revise.

“The FCC’s vote was needlessly rushed and based on inadequate information,” Dorgan said Tuesday. “The votes cast by Chairman Martin, and Commissioners Tate and McDowell short changed the American people’s right to be involved in the discussion of the rules that will govern who owns the media we all depend on for news and information.”

His next move may be a resolution of disapproval, which, if passed, would essentially invalidate the rule. The Senate passed a similar bill in 2003, but it got bottled up in the House then mooted by the court remand of the rules back to the FCC.

The criticism of the rule came flying over the electronic transom:

This from House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who formally requested that Martin delay the vote:

“Despite specific bipartisan and bicameral opposition, the Federal Communications Commission acted arrogantly and brazenly today to weaken the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban. While the commission did tighten some loopholes in the rule, I am greatly displeased that the chairman chose to vote on this important issue a mere week after hundreds of pages of comment were submitted on his proposed rule. I question whether the commission gave adequate, or any, consideration to the public’s input. I am also deeply dismayed that the commission granted dozens of waivers of the new rule without any opportunity for public comment ... The FCC is a creature of Congress, and these matters will be the subject of rigorous oversight by the Committee on Energy and Commerce.”

And this from House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who tempered his criticism with some praise for tougher waiver standards the FCC adopted for newspaper-TV combinations in smaller markets:

“I am disappointed that the FCC did not give these media-ownership proposals additional time for full review by the public and Congress. Further deliberation on these issues would have increased the chances of coming to a greater consensus on chairman Martin’s plan, including possible agreement on additional proposals that could have better promoted diversity, localism and competition in the media marketplace. I am particularly concerned about the process by which last-minute waivers were granted to dozens of existing media combinations without public input.

“I am eager for the FCC to make concrete progress on minority media-ownership issues and on promoting the historic value of localism in media policy early next year and intend to press the commission to take such action.

“Though I wish the chairman had given this issue more time and delayed today’s vote, I am encouraged by reports that the FCC appears to have addressed positively, in part, several areas of ambiguity in chairman Martin’s original media-ownership proposal. I intend to fully review the contents of the order the commissioners voted upon today.”

The Parents Television Council, which sees a relationship between consolidation and objectionable TV content -- as does FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, for one -- wasn't happy at all.

“The PTC is deeply disappointed in the announcement today by the FCC that will effectively loosen long-standing rules for media ownership. While the ruling today will only affect a select number of U.S. markets, even a small step in the wrong direction is a step in the wrong direction,” said PTC president Tim Winter in a statement Tuesday.

“At hearings across the United States over the past two years, the overwhelming message from the public was that media conglomerates regularly and routinely place their own corporate interest ahead of the public interest," he added. "With today’s announcement, the FCC has turned a deaf ear to the prevailing public sentiment voiced at each and every localism hearing.”

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he hoped Congress would be able to put language in an appropriations bill to block the deregulatory move.

"FCC chairman Martin and his two Republican counterparts at the agency are continuing to chip away at the American public's right to receive news from a wide variety of sources," he said Tuesday. "By repealing a rule that has prevented television-station owners from also owning a newspaper in the same major market, the FCC is limiting rather than expanding the number of sources from which Americans can get their news.

"Chairman Martin's decision to push today's cross-ownership vote forward without adequate time for public comment is the latest in a series of disappointing, but not surprising ... I am hopeful that the Congress will be able to swiftly add language in the omnibus appropriations bill to block this new rule change. If not, then reversing this new rule will most certainly be a top priority as we enter 2008. Since the FCC refuses to act in the best interest of the American public, then it is up to the Congress to do the job for them."

Free Press was speaking freely:

"Prior to today's vote, Martin portrayed his proposal as a 'moderate compromise' that would allow one company to own both a daily newspaper and a low-rated broadcast-TV station in only the 20 largest media markets," research director S. Derek Turner said. "But research from Free Press -- collected in the 'Devil in the Details' report -- exposed how the loose and ambiguous 'waiver' standards in the proposal left a giant loophole for big media companies to sidestep the ban in any market and for any station.

"But the final rule -- rewritten in the middle of the night before the hearing -- is even worse.

"The new cross-ownership rule retains all of the loopholes -- and adds two get-out-of-jail-free cards. And based on the statements made by the commissioners today, it appears that these new loopholes will allow cross-ownership mergers in virtually any market."

Concerned that the FCC did not prohibit the combination of newspaper and TV station newsroom operations -- although it did require independent decision-making and staffs -- Tom Carpenter, general counsel and director of legislative affairs for the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, said the union was disappointed and that the rule change is "contrary to the FCC's mandate to safeguard diversity of local voices and the public interest."

Joining what appeared to be the common cause of opposing the rule change was Common Cause president Bob Edgar:

“The FCC still doesn’t seem to get it: Media consolidation is bad for America,” he said. “Today’s vote to allow greater media consolidation is merely a handout to big business at the expense of the public. For Americans to get the information they need to participate in our democracy, we need more diverse sources of information -- not fewer.”