Senate Anti-Dereg Warrior Vows To Fight On

The North Dakota Democrat talks about his battle to overturn the FCC's new rules and why it's important
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Sen. Byron Dorgan has led a furious fight to overturn the FCC's June 2 relaxation of broadcast-ownership limits. He had success with his side of Capitol Hill: The Senate passed a "legislative veto" he co-authored that would erase the FCC's action, which would permit ownership of more stations locally and nationally and crossownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in more markets.

Now he's doing everything he can to get the House to follow. The effort has put the North Dakota Democrat up against the White House, which has threatened a veto, and the GOP congressional leadership. He needs 218 votes to bring the measure, officially dubbed a resolution of disapproval, to the House floor over Speaker Dennis Hastert's opposition. At last count, it had 208 backers.

Also awaiting votes on Capitol Hill are narrower measures to return the FCC's new cap on TV-station ownership from 45% of national television households reached to 35%. The House approved it in an FCC spending bill in July, and a similar measure was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in September. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hopes to strip the rollback from final legislation, either on the Senate floor or in the conference to reconcile the two bills.

If some rollback passes Capitol Hill, many—Dorgan among them—believe that President Bush won't follow through on the veto because it would hand Democrats one more issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Dorgan was elected Senator in 1992 after serving 12 years as his state's sole member in the House of Representatives. He is tight with Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who named him chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, a position Lyndon Johnson held before becoming Senate Majority Leader.

Dorgan has been a longtime foe of media deregulation and recently added centralcasting (production of local news by a regional hub) and voicetracking (beaming of an out-of-town DJ into local market) to new broadcast practices he decries.

He spoke recently with B&C Assistant Editor Bill McConnell about media concentration and the prospects for reining in the FCC. An edited transcript follows:

What's the danger to the American media landscape if your "legislative veto" fails?

If we can't overturn these rules, it's very likely the issue is largely over. Obviously, we'll keep fighting, but I think the Bush Administration wins and what the American people see, hear and read will be controlled by fewer and fewer people. There will be an orgy of mergers and substantial crossownership. I think concentration will gallop right along.

If your initiative is enacted, where does the debate go from here?

It goes back to the FCC, which has to construct a new set of rules. This time, they can do that in way that is thoughtful and promotes the public interest. I encourage them to hold a wide series of public hearings across country. The expression of over three-quarters of a million individuals opposed to the changes should tell them there's broad interest across the country.

Should there be more guidance from Congress?

Congress should next address other questions. What are the criteria for licensure? What minimum things do we expect from people who use the airwaves? These are reasonable for Congress to address.

How would you answer those questions?

I agree with Sen. Fritz Hollings. I'd like to see a family-viewing hour when children watching television and parents could expect this as a time when there is material appropriate for a family.

What's the harm in letting media companies get bigger?

Centralcasting and voicetracking is where all this is headed. It's all about the bottom line and very little to do with serving the public interest or with localism. If somebody this morning announces in Salt Lake City, "It's a great morning, the sun shining in Salt Lake City," and they're really broadcasting from a basement in Baltimore, that is antithetical to everything that represents localism.

Time is running on the current session of Congress, and the leadership will put up a major fight to stop you. Is there enough time and support for you to prevail?

Obviously, we've gotten the resolution through the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote. The leadership in the House, which always favors the big economic interests, once again are acting true to form and trying to block this resolution. We've made lots of progress. If they can spring it loose from the Speaker's jail, I think it's going to pass the House of Representatives and go to the president.

His aides are threatening veto.

The president has a group of aides whose job it is to get up in the morning and threaten vetoes for this, that and the other legislation. But I don't think the president is going to make this his first veto.

One of your most-repeated examples of harm caused by concentration is Clear Channel's hold over all the stations in Minot, a small town in your home state. The FCC attempted to fix the problem by tightening local-ownership rules to some degree. Don't you find it ironic that your legislation would reverse the FCC's attempt to rectify excesses in radio?

The FCC wouldn't solve the Minot problem with what they've done. They don't require divestiture of current ownership. You're right that they tightened radio rules in a narrow way for future acquisitions. But if the price is to allow crossownership and the kind of concentration they're going to permit, that's too high to pay.

Should public-affairs quotas and obligations to ascertain community input be resurrected?

After you do your rule in which you move down the road to largely destroying localism, you're going to have a national discussion about it? If ever there was a proverbial cart before the horse, this is it. By altering ownership rules, you have decided that localism doesn't matter. Why would you craft some kind of device that tells distant owners to pretend they're local?

Conceivably, the rules would obligate owners, wherever they're based, to offer more local-originated shows.

I don't hear the FCC saying voicetracking is an attempt to fool consumers. If the FCC said they were troubled by the whole series of things like that, I'd say, "Good. Let's do something about it." But they've shown no effort to come down on the right side of these issues. Certainly, their ownership regulations come down on wrong side. So I have no reason for high hopes that they will do anything on the localism issue after they have made a decision that will largely destroy localism.

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