Lawmakers push delay on ownership vote


WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers began pushing legislation Thursday that would delay by at least six months FCC consideration of new-media ownership rules.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., contends that FCC chairman Kevin Martin is in too much of a rush to change the nation's media ownership regulations.

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

But to Dorgan and his Senate allies, that timetable is too truncated.

"No one wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat saying we need to have more media consolidation," Dorgan said during a hearing on the issue before the Senate Commerce Committee.

In Dorgan's view, the commission's examination of local ownership and media companies' responsiveness to local needs should be finished before the FCC makes a decision to ease the ownership restrictions.

The Media Ownership Act of 2007 would require the commission to finish its current proceeding on localism, giving the public a 90-day comment window on that issue, before making a decision on the media ownership changes. The bill then gives the public a separate 90-day comment period for any proposal altering the media ownership rules.

While the bill has broad support among other members of the Commerce Committee, including Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and the panel's chairman Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ben Nelson, D-Fla., it is unlikely that they can win full Senate approval, much less final passage before the FCC acts.

Much of Martin's plan appears to focus on easing the rule that bars one entity from owning a newspaper and broadcast outlet in one city. While there already are some combinations in existence, they are allowed under special waivers of the rules. The commission could consider loosening the restrictions on the number of radio and television stations a company could own in the same city.

The lawmakers are hoping that the legislation and a show of strength backing it up will convince Martin to slow his time table.

That might also be wishful thinking, as a delay of at least six months could easily make any easing of the rules fodder for the presidential campaign. Martin has close ties to the White House and is unlikely to want to give the Republicans any more trouble than they already have during the election season.

Knowledgeable sources say that Martin is attempting to narrow the scope of his rule changes so that they will avoid problems in the federal courts.