Senate Committee Sounds Alarm on Media Ownership

Rankled by reports that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin could bring new media ownership rules to a commission vote as early as December, the Senate Commerce Committee took a look at the state of media localism and diversity at a hearing Thursday.

Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) cautioned the agency not to rush to judgment. “Regardless of whether they are a broad set of new rules or modest changes, the FCC should focus on completing pending proceedings on localism and public interest obligations that have long languished for lack of attention,” he said.

Inouye said he recently discussed the issue with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin “and stressed my belief that rushing forward before the end of the year would be a serious mistake.”

Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, wasted no time. “The state of minority media ownership in the American broadcast industry is in crisis,” he told the panel. “Our country is diversifying, but our media is not.”

Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of HD pioneer Capitol Broadcasting Co., said the middle of the digital transition was no time to revise media ownership rules.

Capitol’s two DTV stations in Raleigh can effectively function as eight channels, and its two radio stations can function as six channels with HD radio technology, he said. “I urge Congress and the FCC to wait and carefully evaluate the impact of the digital transition on localism, diversity and competition before changing the current media ownership rules.”

According to several reports, Martin plans to relax rules restricting the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.

Meanwhile, committee members Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) introduced legislation Thursday to halt what they called the FCC’s “fast march” toward easing media ownership rules.

“We believe localism and diversity of media ownership is vital in a democracy,” Dorgan said. “Our bill recognizes the importance of a wide range of media owners and local content, and requires a process that does not rush past those concerns to open the gates for even more consolidation of media ownership. We believe there is value to local ownership in the media.”

“Communities count on getting their local news from their locally-owned television stations and weekly and daily newspapers,” Lott said. “They know ‘locally-owned’ means they’re invested in their communities and care about their well-being. If the FCC won’t do their job to keep East and West coast media conglomerates from pushing out these local voices, then there is a role for the Congress to play.”

Dorgan and Lott announced their intentions to introduce legislation on the issue at a press conference Oct. 24

The Media Ownership Act of 2007 would require 90 days for the public to comment on any proposed media ownership rules put forward by the FCC. It would also require the FCC to complete a separate proceeding to evaluate how localism is affected by media consolidation. The bill would require that the public have an opportunity to comment on that proceeding during a 90 day public comment period. The bill states that the localism proceeding must be done separately and be completed prior to a vote on proposed media ownership rules.

The bill would also require the establishment of an independent panel on female and minority ownership and for the FCC to provide the panel with accurate data on female and minority ownership. This panel would issue recommendations and the FCC would have to act on them prior to voting on any proposed ownership rules.

Dorgan and Lott have fought media consolidation before, when then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell moved to loosen ownership restrictions..

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), John Kerry (D-Mass), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).