Senate passes resolution to reverse FCC media ownership liberalization

The Senate voted today by a margin of 50 to 45 to undo rules the Federal Communications Commission adopted in June to relax media ownership restrictions.

The vote is the latest step in the struggle pitting the Bush administration’s FCC against a coalition of interest groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association and Consumers Union and citizens who oppose the commission’s new rules that raise the national audience cap a television network can reach to 45 percent, allow for cross-ownership of television and daily newspapers in the same market and permit television duopolies.

S.J. Resolution 17 reverses the FCC rules, reverting ownership regulations to what existed prior to the June 2 commission action. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia last week granted a temporary stay of the FCC rules.

Following the vote, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell said that if the Senate’s action becomes law, regulation of the media becomes murky. “This resolution, if passed by the House and signed by the president, would only muddy the media regulatory waters,” he said in a written statement. “It would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos. It would create perverse results, such as a return to looser radio rules permitting greater consolidation.

“This is a harm the FCC’s new media rules were designed to avoid. It would also reinstate ownership rules that were overturned by the courts. Under the terms of the resolution, the FCC would be forbidden from reissuing any substantially similar rules. In short the agency would be powerless to cure the infirmities identified by the court.

“What is most important is to have the best policies for the American people. I hope the House will take a more considered view of the public interest.”

Late last week Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced that 340,000 petitions were delivered to the House and Senate urging Congressional reversal of the new FCC rules. In association with dozens of groups and organizations, and Consumers Union collected the petition signatures. Hundreds of thousands of other letters and postcards from groups like Consumers Union and the National Rifle Association also have been received or are on the way, according to the pair.

“Broadcast stations operate on airwaves that are owned by the public, under licenses that require they serve the cause of localism and diversity,” Dorgan said in a statement released by his office. “The FCC seems to have forgotten that, but the American people have not forgotten.” The statement quoted him adding that to allow the rules to stand would “let loose an orgy of corporate mergers and acquisitions.”

For his part, Lott opposes the new rules because they “could starve out smaller, more locally driven broadcast or print alternatives,” according to a statement on the senator’s Web site. “Expanding concentration of media ownership may be in the best interest of huge Washington or New York-based media giants, but it would not be in the best interest of Mississippi's smaller media owners or media consumers like you and me,” he said in the statement.

Whether or not a House-version will be adopted is in question because such a measure seems to lack the support of the Republican House leadership.

Last week, a statement issued from the Office of Management and Budget in response to the impending Senate action said senior administration advisors would recommend that President George Bush veto S.J. Resolution 17 if it were to pass.

“The Administration believes that the new FCC local and national media ownership rules more accurately reflect the changing media landscape and the current state of network station ownership, while guarding against undue concentration in the marketplace,” the statement said.

According to Lott, if Bush were to exercise his veto, two-thirds of the Senate would vote to override the president.

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