Obama: FCC should delay rule changes

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WASHINGTON -- The media ownership debate took on a presidential tenor on Monday as Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., urged the Republican chairman of the FCC to change his tune regarding the rules.

In a letter dated Monday, the presidential contender asked FCC chairman Kevin Martin to reconsider his aggressive timeline for any proposed rule changes and to vet his proposals with the public.

“Minority owned-and-operated newspapers and radio stations play a critical role in the African American and Latino communities and bring minority issues to the forefront of our national discussion,” Obama wrote. “However, the Commission has failed to further the goals of diversity in the media and promote localism, and as a result, it is in no position to justify allowing for increased consolidation of the market. Moreover, 30 days of public review of a specific proposed change is insufficient to assess the effect that change would have on the media marketplace or the rationale on which any such proposal is based.”

Martin has indicated that he wants to wrap up the ownership regulation review soon, with a vote before the end of the year. Martin reportedly has suggested that the commission release his proposals on Nov. 13 before the commission votes on them, giving the public a month to comment on them and perhaps make changes.

Other lawmakers also have been critical of the proposed changes, which include lifting the outright bar that keeps ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets separate in local markets.

Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, also have called for Martin to slow down his consideration of the deal.

While there are several of the combinations nationwide, they have been allowed under individual, temporary waivers.

On June 2, 2003, the FCC relaxed decades-old rules restricting media ownership, permitting companies to buy more television stations and own a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same city.

Media companies argued that existing ownership rules were outmoded in a media landscape that has been altered substantially by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet. Critics say the eased restrictions likely would have led to a wave of mergers, landing a few giant media companies in control of even more of what the public sees, hears and reads.

The federal appeals court in Philadelphia threw out the new regulations, saying the FCC hadn’t done enough to prove that the changes were needed. One regulation that raised a single company’s audience-reach ceiling to 45% of U.S. households, instead of 35%, was taken off the table when Congress last year set the audience-reach ceiling at 39% by statute.

Since then, the commission has held a series of media ownership hearings across the country.

Martin can likely count on the votes of Republican commissioners Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell, but it is unclear if he can win the support of Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
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