Dow deal stirs skeptics


WASHINGTON -- Rupert Murdoch's maneuvers to buy Dow Jones and its flagship Wall Street Journal has rekindled the ever-thorny debate over who owns the media, just as federal regulators edge closer to a rewrite of the rules that govern multiple media ownership.

While the deal for Dow Jones appears to skirt federal rules aimed at limiting local media control, problems could arise for Murdoch when News Corp. seeks renewal for its licenses to operate a pair of Fox TV stations in New York.

News Corp. executives contend that the commission rules don't apply to Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones because the Journal is a national newspaper and commission precedent allows joint ownership of a national newspaper and a TV station. The executives said FCC meddling should be limited, noting that the deal does not require them to file with the commission.

While there are no applications to file in the Dow Jones deal, the commission still has to decide whether Murdoch's licenses to operate the two New York TV stations should be renewed. Included in those licenses is a federal waiver that allows Murdoch to operate WNYW-TV and WWOR-TV as well as the New York Post.

The United Church of Christ and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition are challenging the licenses, arguing that the commission should rescind the temporary waivers because joint ownership of the three entities is contrary to the public interest.

The announcement of the $5 billion deal to buy Dow Jones, coupled with the release of thousands of pages of data examining the effect of media consolidation, can't help but raise concerns about the implications of Murdoch's latest move.

Already, one of the FCC commissioners, Michael Copps, is questioning the wisdom of having the commission take a timeout regarding one of the highest-profile media deals in recent memory.

"This deal means more media consolidation and fewer independent voices, and it specifically impacts the local market in New York City," Copps said. "We should immediately conduct a careful factual and legal analysis of the transaction to determine how it implicates specific FCC rules and our overarching statutory obligation to protect the public interest. I hope nobody views this as a slam-dunk."

While Copps has yet to pick up support on the issue at the commission, groups active in the media consolidation battles of the past have been rejuvenated.

"There is no question that the circumstances around the purchase of the Wall Street Journal are contributing to a renewal of interest about the concentration of media ownership," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of Media Access Project.

Schwartzman won the court case that overturned the FCC's first attempt to ease the media ownership rules.

While Murdoch was busy making his deal to buy Dow Jones and land the Journal, the FCC was busy with its media-ownership proceedings. On Tuesday, the commission released 10 studies that examine how media concentration affects the country.

Release of the data has stirred consumer advocates to take another look at the issue. FCC chairman Kevin Martin has proposed a new set of rules designed to make it easier for minorities and women to buy media properties, adding to the sense that the chairman is getting serious about the issue.