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Ownership Rules: Senators Want to See the Plan

With the June 2 decision date looming for the FCC on a cluster of major decisions on media ownership, a bipartisan group of senators wants an advance look at what the commission has in mind.

In an April 9 letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, 10 Democrats and five Republicans asked that Congress and the public be allowed to review and comment upon the changes before the vote on its final form.

"We believe it is virtually impossible to serve the public interest in this extremely important and highly complex proceeding without letting the public know about and comment on the changes you intend to make to these critical rules," the letter stated. "Dramatic changes in the structure of our media marketplace could have long-term consequences on the diversity of voices and free expression in our nation. Given the gravity of this proceeding, we are puzzled as to why the FCC would not insist on having a thorough discussion about any proposed changes before these would take effect."

Among the letter's signatories are Sens. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

If the commission does not respond, they might be asked more directly by the Commerce Committee. Hollings sent a letter to committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), calling for a hearing on the issues with all five commissioners present.

"It is critical that the Committee be permitted to discuss these issues with the Commissioners prior to their decision," Hollings wrote.

In a written response to senators' letters, Powell repeated his statements that the public record on the issues is thorough and the law requires a timely review. And he said it was unusual and unnecessary to let the public in on the rules before the commission votes on them.

The FCC will draw from a record of a dozen studies it ordered plus more than 18,000 written comments, the vast majority of them from individuals. Commissioner Michael Copps has led the drive for field hearings on ownership in several cities including Seattle, Richmond, Va., and Durham, N.C.

"I assure you, again, that if, in our sound judgment, further comment on any specific rule changes in this proceeding is required, we will seek it," Powell stated. "I understand that many would appreciate the opportunity to see each specific proposed rule change prior to adoption, but we do nothing radical by declining the invitation. In my five-and-a-half years at the Commission, I do not recall a single instance in which such a process was pursued--including numerous matters involving media and ownership rules."

The rules under review include the single-market television duopoly restrictions, newspaper-broadcast and television-radio resections and the 35 percent nationwide ownership cap.