Media ownership: It’s not over yet

Democrats in Congress may have given into Republicans on new media ownership rules earlier this month, but the issue continues to be tied up in a Federal Court with the outcome far from clear.

All of the FCC-approved media ownership rules—including the current television ownership cap—remain under a court-ordered stay. Later this month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia will decide whether the rules should be upheld or returned to the FCC. If the court scraps the rules, even FCC lawyers are unsure whether the congressional cap, passed last month as part of a spending bill, will still be law.

By a vote of 65-28, the Senate recently approved the spending bill—already approved by the House—that includes a rider saying a major network may not own a group of stations that can reach more than 39 percent of the national audience. The figure was arrived at after a closed-door bargaining session between representatives of the White House and the congressional GOP leadership. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation.

Democrats were circumvented on the issue and vow to continue the fight against the media rules. “Both the policy and the process through which the big interests prevailed on this issue in the omnibus (spending bill) are deeply flawed,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

“If anyone thinks we’re going to fold our tent and go home, they can think again,” Dorgan told The Washington Post.

Media giants Viacom, which owns CBS, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns Fox, benefit most from the White House compromise. Currently, Viacom’s CBS stations reach 39 percent of the national audience; News Corp.’s reach 38 percent. Neither will have to sell stations to comply with the new ownership cap. If it is returned to 35 percent, they may have to divest some stations.

The roll back from 45 percent has been seen by some as a rebuke to FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, chief architect of the new rules. But he scoffed at the notion during a recent speech at the National Press Club, saying Congress has the right to set ownership limits in law, superceding the FCC’s ability to set it in regulation.

“If 39 percent is where democracy survived and 45 is where it died, so be it,” Powell said.

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