FCC regulators: On with the show

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WASHINGTON -- The FCC might not be held hostage by the writers strike, but it is expected to rerun its media ownership show Tuesday, albeit this time it is likely to write in a new plot twist that could give it a legal ratings win at the federal courthouse.

During the commission's meeting Tuesday, the Republican majority is expected to approve FCC chairman Kevin Martin's plan to significantly ease the federal rule that generally bars one entity from owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market.

The commission took a similar step in 2003, on a 3-2 vote with the Republicans voting for it and the Democrats against it. That action, which came with a different chairman and was significantly more ambitious, was rejected by the federal appeals court in Philadelphia.

This time, Martin is writing his version with that one three-judge audience in mind. While the appellate court didn't like the version of the earlier show, it gave a good review to the episode that involved easing the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule.

Under Martin's plan, newspaper-TV combos would be allowed in the top 20 markets as long as the television station in the deal was not among the four most-watched stations.

Martin repeatedly has mentioned the court's opinion when he has argued for his version of the show before his critics in Congress and elsewhere.

"The court specifically upheld the commission's determination that the absolute ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership was no longer necessary," Martin told the Senate Commerce Committee last week.

Martin's arguments about the court -- and that the world has changed so much since the commission enacted the rule in 1975 that a change is necessary -- have failed to still those critical voices.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of 25 U.S. senators, led by Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told Martin that going ahead with the vote will force the lawmakers to move legislation to revoke the rule and nullify the vote.

Those signing the letter include Sens. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ted Stevens, R-Ark., the chairman and vice chairman of the Commerce Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over the FCC.

On Monday, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., released a letter from Congress' investigative arm that is critical of the commission's fact finding. Markey chairs the House Commerce Committee's panel overseeing the FCC.

The committee already has approved legislation that would delay the vote by up to six months. Dorgan contends that a rule change of this scope needs more time for the public to digest.

"When you proposed a new rule on the effects of communications towers on migratory birds, you allowed for a 90-day comment period," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Martin. "How could you decide to allow 90 days for a migratory bird rule and then shortchange the public on the media-ownership rule?"

Also on Monday, Markey released a report by congressional investigators that criticized the commission's fact gathering. Markey chairs the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee.

The interim report by the General Accountability Office study highlights the lack of female- and minority-owned broadcast outlets in all markets. In undertaking this study, the GAO found recurring problems with data at the FCC, saying it is often incomplete and unavailable to analyze ownership issues.

"If the FCC proceeds with a vote (Tuesday) on media-ownership issues, I urge all the commissioners to weigh carefully the impact of any new rules or waiver standards on the historic policy values of diversity and localism," Markey said. "Our democracy relies upon an informed citizenry, and there are few issues that the FCC will address that will have a more profound impact on our civic institutions than the media-ownership proposals that may be voted upon tomorrow."
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