New Ownership Order Faces Uncertain Fate

The Democrats on the commission, Martin said, keep moving the goalposts and will apparently oppose just about any order Martin comes up with.

Facing down opponents ranging from Code Pink protestors to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Republicans on the FCC held together Tuesday to loosen newspaper-broadcaster cross-ownership rules. But broadcasters shouldn’t set their eyes on their local printing presses quite yet—some 27 senators said they’ll legislate the order away faster than FCC Chairman Kevin Martin can say “consolidation,” and other critics have already said they’ll sue.

The rules would allow a single owner to own both a daily newspaper and a broadcast property in the nation’s top 20 markets if certain conditions were met.

The two sides were far apart on several aspects of the order.

In the view of Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, the order provides big media with an avenue to more consolidation, to be followed by newsroom layoffs and pressure on competitors from the new, combined entities. They dismissed as too easy the tests that the new rules would require for prospective mergers in the top 20 markets.

In smaller markets, mergers between newspapers and broadcasters would start out with a presumption that they were not in the public interest; but Copps and Adelstein said the new rules present a menu of loopholes for big media companies to take over properties. They said that even in the smaller markets, the supposed tests to overcome the negative presumption were too easy to meet and would result in deals even there.

The Republicans said the order is needed to prevent newspapers from being run out of business, leading to fewer local voices. They also said that the abundance of cable, satellite and Internet options satisfies the need for media diversity.

The Democrats blasted Martin yet again for what they characterized as a rigged public comment process and for ignoring ongoing inquiries on localism and diversity of ownership. Changes in Tuesday’s order circulated late into Monday night and up to just 15 minutes before the commissioners sat for the meeting, Copps said.

Nonsense, said the Republicans. There have been years of studies, hundreds of thousands of comments and scores of expert witnesses.

When Martin’s turn to speak came, he fought back, chastising Copps and Adelstein for their repeated demands over process, which Martin said he agreed to again and again. The Democrats on the commission, Martin said, keep moving the goalposts and will apparently oppose just about any order Martin comes up with.

Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate called the process the most open and transparent she’s ever seen in government. She noted that the public comment process had taken her to “wonderful places” around the country, “from sea to shining sea.”

Congressional critics reacted quickly. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said the FCC “acted arrogantly and brazenly” and he promised “vigorous oversight” from the committee.

A spokesman for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Congress had many methods with which to block implementation of the order. Congressional tactics include the rarely used Congressional Review Act as well as the appropriations process.

In a press conference Thursday, Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell predicted the new rules would largely survive, noting that the changes are mild in relation to the package of ownership rule revisions set up by the FCC under then-Chairman Michael Powell in 2003 and mostly remanded back to the commission.

NAB called the rule changes “modest” and “an important step forward.”