Lawmakers Attempt to Thwart Martin’s Ownership Plan

The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would cut the breaks on Martin’s plan to allow newspapers to own certain broadcast properties in the top 20 markets.
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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has plans to bring newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership to a vote at the commission’s Dec. 18 meeting, but Congress, which makes the nation’s laws, could stop that.

The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would cut the breaks on Martin’s plan to allow newspapers to own certain broadcast properties in the top 20 markets.

Sponsored by longtime anti-consolidation warriors Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the measure would require 90 days for the public to comment on any proposed media ownership rules put forward by the FCC. It would also require the FCC to complete a separate proceeding to evaluate how localism is affected by media consolidation prior to other action, including a study of the impact of cross-ownership on localism at the market level. Finally, the bill would also require the establishment of an independent panel on female and minority ownership, furnished with accurate data from the commission, and would require the FCC to act on the panel’s recommendations prior to voting on any proposed ownership rules.

The bill must pass the full Senate, plus the House, before reaching the president’s desk. That’s a lot to do before Dec. 18, but Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), said he hoped the measure would reach the full Senate within a few weeks, and the measure’s co-sponsors include presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd.

And if the bill dies, there are plenty of other ways the Senate has to block FCC action, Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt noted. Dorgan and Lott have previously threatened to use the rarely invoked Congressional Review Act to block FCC action.

“There’s a widely shared sense of urgency,” Piatt said. “Hopefully, the chairman of the FCC will wake up and smell the coffee about what Congress thinks of this.”

The five commissioners had the opportunity to weigh in on Capitol Hill Wednesday when the House Telecom Subcommittee addressed the ownership issue.

There, lawmakers questioned whether Martin’s proposed tests to allow specific cross-ownership in top markets were speed bumps on the way to consolidation, or more like a Berlin Wall.

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps derided those tests—to produce more news after a merger, for example, or whether a market has sufficient diversity of voices—as vague and too easy to pass.

“It’s not a Berlin Wall or a speed bump. It’s an on-ramp to more consolidation,” said Copps. “This is a huge loophole.”

Some lawmakers stood up for Martin, maintaining that his proposed rules should allow cross-ownership beyond just the top-20 markets, to smaller markets where both newspapers and broadcasters could benefit from combined ownership. Martin responded that a gradual approach would be wiser, starting in markets that have “a plethora” of media voices.

House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who also announced he is launching an investigation into FCC practices, was cool to Martin’s plans.

“I continue to have grave concerns about the lack of time to review comments on the proposed rule,” he said. “If there is anyone who believes that one week provides sufficient time to review the thousands of pages of comments which will surely be received, then I have a bridge in Michigan that I’d like to sell you.

“My initial reaction to any proposal designed to permit greater consolidation of the media is not positive,” Dingell continued. “Still, I am willing to consider Chairman Martin’s arguments and those of his colleagues and to give them all fair consideration. I recognize that the marketplace has changed.”