Media Ownership Battle Brewing

With reports that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin may bring an order relaxing media ownership restrictions to a vote as early as December, U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) promised this week to fight the way they did the last time the issue arose, under then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Then, interest groups drummed up hundreds of thousands of missives opposing laws that would allow ownership consolidation, and Dorgan and Lott got wide support for a rarely used “resolution of disapproval” that could have blocked the measure. A court ruling remanded much of the order back to the commission’s drawing board.

In a letter to Martin this week, Dorgan and Lott said the FCC should not make new rules until it completes a separate inquiry, complete with a 90-day public comment period, on the effect of media consolidation on service to local communities.

If the commission goes ahead, the lawmakers vowed to haul out the resolution of disapproval again.

“We feel that there is a rush to judgment,” Lott said at a press conference.

In particular, the FCC is expected to relax the rules limiting newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, a move the NAB supports.

“The real threat today to locally oriented services, including costly services such as local news, is not the joint ownership of broadcast stations (which the Commission’s studies show promotes such services), but the stations’ continuing challenge to maintain their economic vibrancy in the face of multichannel and other competitors that are not constrained by restrictions on local ownership structure,” NAB said in comments to the FCC.

In an effort to avoid the public backlash that ensued back in 2003, the last time the ownership issue reach an apex, the FCC has conducted public hearings and released 10 studies on localism. But Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and Free Press are not impressed.

“[T]he FCC’s official studies in this proceeding are an ad hoc collection of inconsistent, incompetent and incoherent pieces of research cobbled together to prove a foregone conclusion,” the groups said in a comment of more than 300 pages. “Overwhelming evidence suggests that the Commission wanted to dramatically relax or eliminate the cross ownership rule, so it out together a series of studies it though would support its preconceived notion.”