On Dec. 18, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin is set to hold a vote on the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, which have been debated in Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years. Under Martin’s basic deregulatory proposal, companies would be able to own both a TV or radio station and a local newspaper in any of the top 20 markets as long as the TV station in question is not among the market’s top four and the market already has eight independent media voices.
But the proposal satisfied few on either side of the big media debate.
While Newspaper Association of America president John Sturm won’t go so far as to oppose Martin’s plan, noting that any progress is better than none, he explained to B&C’s Paige Albiniak what he would do if he were FCC chairman, how the issue will most likely be locked in the courts and how the proposal affects minorities.
Q: After 30-plus years of this debate, what odds do you give this to actually become a rule Dec. 18?
A: I don’t know if I’m real good at offering odds, but the chairman seems quite set on having this voted on Dec. 18. He has said so in his public statement, and he’s said that to others, both in press conferences and even before that. I think that he’s committed to having a vote. Whatever the commission promulgates on that day, this is clearly going to go back to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia pursuant to the remand of the broader case in 2003. My view is that since the court has already said the across-the-board ban is not necessary to achieve the commission’s goals of localism and diversity, I would think the court would look quite favorably on something that is well short of removing the ban. We, of course, have always argued for and believed that the record at the FCC amply supports an even more aggressive approach that would remove the across-the-board ban consistent with what the court has supported in the past.
Q: If the entire decision were up to you, what would you prefer to see?
A: There wouldn’t be a rule. The reason I feel very comfortable about that is we’ve had 32 years of experience in 40-some markets where there is no rule in effect. There is already a grandfathered cross-owned situation -- no harm, no monopolies, no problems -- in these markets, and the FCC has never denied a license to any of those stations. This rule doesn’t prevent anything bad, it only prevents something good: more news and public affairs for local audiences.
Q: Assuming the rule becomes FCC regulation, what do you predict will happen next?
A: The relief that the commission is contemplating would pass muster in the Philadelphia court. A number of folks will seek waivers of the rule under the provisions that are finally enacted. Those provisions are pretty tough, and it needn’t be that difficult. In any event, someone will pursue a waiver. If the commission grants the waiver, some public-interest group will challenge it in court. If the commission doesn’t grant the waiver, there also will be a court challenge. Either way, this issue will go to court and not to the Philadelphia court. It will go to D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for a review, and experts say that is friendlier venue. Ultimately, I think the court will have something close to the final say in all of this. It’s pretty clear in the world in which we live that an awful lot of FCC decisions get resolved in court.
Q: By excluding markets below the top 20, doesn’t this rule foreclose opportunities to help minority voices that might only have been able to afford a paper in a smaller market?
A: I view the whole rule as an unfortunate barrier to ownership of radio and television stations by minority owners of newspapers. There probably aren’t very many of those, but we have seen pretty serious growth, especially in the Hispanic press. Some of that is not necessarily all in Spanish. Owners of those properties would be precluded from owning radio and TV stations in markets below the top 20.
Q: Why is Martin doing this now?
A: The chairman is weighing this issue against the backdrop of congressional interest and a belief that the FCC was going to deal with number of rules this time around. One of the things the chairman made clear is that the other rules are off the table. He could go a lot further on substance, but we have to deal with what we’ve got.