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WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders met Tuesday with Tribune Co. officials and its prospective buyer over concerns that federal regulators have not issued a decision regarding the company’s ownership of different media in the same markets.
Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell, who wants to take Tribune private in an $8.2 billion deal, described the meeting as “wonderful” after leaving the Capitol office of Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois’ highest ranking member of Congress.
Zell declined to detail Tuesday’s discussions, but said it was “very important” to secure regulatory waivers from the FCC. Tribune chairman and CEO Dennis FitzSimons and other company officials did not comment as they left the Capitol.
Tribune has requested waivers from rules banning same-market ownership of television and newspapers.
The Chicago-based company, which owns 11 daily newspapers and 23 TV stations, has temporary waivers to operate broadcast and newspaper outlets in the same cities despite the ban. With a sale, it no longer would have a grandfathered exemption from cross-ownership rules in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Hartford, Conn., and Fort Lauderdale-Miami.
Nearly a month ago, Durbin wrote a joint letter with Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Chicago, that urged the FCC to make prompt decisions regarding the sale. It was signed by most members of Illinois’ congressional delegation.
“There’s a lot at stake here — 20,000 employees, their future, is on the line,” Durbin, the Senate’s majority whip and second-highest ranking Democrat, said Tuesday, complaining that there has been no FCC response to the delegation’s letter.
FCC spokesman David Fiske said an agency response should go out soon.
“We always appreciate input (from lawmakers),” he said.
Meantime, the Teamsters Union filed comments that called on the FCC to make sure local and diverse views are protected before approving any waivers.
“Including a voice for employee owners is necessary to tie the interests of the company to the local communities it serves,” said James P. Hoffa, general president of the union that represents about 2,000 Tribune employees.
A phone message seeking comment from a Tribune spokesman was not immediately returned Tuesday.
Critics of the $8.2 billion deal have argued that the media conglomerate should be broken up to avoid the cross-ownership that now exists in the five cities. A public interest law firm, Media Access Project, and the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation have urged federal regulators to deny Tribune’s request for waivers.
Durbin said he, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the Senate Democrats’ caucus vice chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, agree the FCC should rule promptly, but without lawmakers pushing one side.
“This has been an issue that’s been debated for 10 years or more, and the FCC ultimately will have to resolve it,” he said of cross-ownership.
Durbin said in more than 20 years in Illinois politics, he has seen no problems arising from cross-ownership in Chicago, where Tribune Co. owns the Chicago Tribune, WGN radio and TV stations.
“I don’t find any monopoly power being pushed into the market, and I think most people in the market feel … that they’re really good sources of news,” he said.
“The world of media is changing with the Internet, the diminished role of newspapers, with the proliferation of television stations, cable and network,” he added. “We have to take care that we don’t judge today’s market with yesterday’s standards.”
Durbin said whatever he and other Democratic leaders do it is going to be done in strict compliance with FCC rules and in the open, with no “back-channel efforts.”
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