FCC chairman seeks to ease media ownership rules

FCC chairman Kevin Martin is promoting an ambitious plan that would dramatically relax the nation’s media ownership rules by year end.

Martin wants the FCC to repeal a rule that forbids a company to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. He also wants to ease restrictions on the number of radio and TV stations a company could own in the same city.

As soon as word of Martin’s plan became public, congress made plans to try to delay the move with legislation requiring additional public comment.

Martin apparently has at least 3-2 majority support on the commission for the rule changes. His plan, if successful, would be a major victory for some executives of media conglomerates, the “New York Times” reported.

Big winners, the “Times” said, would be Samuel Zell, the Chicago investor who is seeking to completely buy out the Tribune Company, and Rupert Murdoch, who has lobbied against the rule for years so that he can continue controlling both “The New York Post” and WNYW-TV, a Fox TV station in New York City.

Under current rules, a company can own two TV stations in the larger markets only if at least one is not among the four largest stations and if there are at least eight local stations.

In recent months, media industry executives had all but abandoned the hope that the FCC would try to modify the ownership rules in the waning days of the Bush administration, the “Times” said. The revelation of Martin’s plan unleashed a wave of opposition.

“This is a big deal because we have way too much concentration of media ownership in the United States,” Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-ND, said at a congressional hearing last week. “If the chairman intends to do something by the end of the year, then there will be a firestorm of protest and I’m going to be carrying the wood.”

As the week ended, there were reports that Dorgan and Sen. Trent Lott, R-MS, were working on legislation that would thwart Martin’s proposal by requiring additional public comment and multiple proposals.

An attempt three years ago to loosen the ownership rules failed when an appellate court found that the FCC had failed to justify the new rules. Martin, the “Times” reported, is seeking to provide better evidence that the rules changes are justified.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a leading FCC opponent of easing the media ownership restrictions, told the “Times” that Martin’s aggressive timetable would require procedural shortcuts, giving the public too little time to comment on the proposals and industry experts too little time to weigh their impact on news operations.

“We shouldn’t be doing anything without having a credible process and nothing should be done to get in the way of congressional oversight and more importantly, public oversight,” Copps said. “We’ve got to have that public scrutiny.”