Media ownership caught in political fight

The political battle over the FCC’s proposed new media ownership rules has escalated to a new high with the president and Congress now using it as leverage in a larger fight over the federal budget.

After an attempted last minute compromise by negotiators to resolve the issue before the Thanksgiving holiday, Congress eventually failed to pass the $820 billion omnibus budget legislation, delaying the contentious debate until a special pre-Christmas session to be held later this month. Even then the bill's passage is doubtful.

Under the new terms, a network would be allowed to own stations reaching 39 percent of the nation’s homes, an increase from the current 35 percent but less than the 45 percent originally sought under the new FCC rules.

The 39 percent figure would protect two of the largest networks, CBS and Fox, which now own stations reaching about 39 percent of the nation’s television audience. It would also enable two other networks, NBC and ABC, to continue to buy stations.

As they have been from the start of the media ownership debate, the networks are keeping very quiet about the issue, both on and off the air. However, Rupert Murdock, chief executive of News Corp., which owns Fox, told reporters after a company shareholders’ meeting last week, “On the face of it, it suits us just fine.”

The revision drew harsh criticism. “The Republicans went into a closet, met with themselves, and announced a ‘compromise,’” said Sen. Ernest F Hollings, (D-S.C.) ranking minority leader of the Senate Commerce Committee. “The Democrats and the conferees were ignored, and the press ought to be ashamed of calling it a ‘compromise.’ We weren’t a part of it whatsoever.”

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, (D-N.D.), a major critic of all the new ownership rules, said it is “galling for the White House to now march in and start dictating that those Congressional decisions be changed. It is even more astounding that anyone in Congress would even consider bowing to those demands.”

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, had originally said Congress should ignore the White House threat to veto the omnibus bill over the ownership provision. But Stevens said last week that he had changed his mind, believing that a permanent 39 percent limit would be better than a 35 percent limit that the FCC might change once this bill lapsed next fall.

“I don’t like it going up 4 percent, but 39 percent is a lot better than 45 percent,” Stevens argued.

Democrats, armed with time and a large majority of Congress on their side, vowed to continue to press for the previous 35 percent limit.

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