Senate rejects FCC’s media ownership rules

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce voted last week to invalidate a recently approved FCC rule that allows media companies to own a newspaper and a television station in the same market.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, the legislation’s sponsor, said the measure is meant to combat "galloping concentration" in the media. Though the legislation has a good chance of passing Congress, President Bush has vowed to veto it.

The rule, which was passed in December by the FCC on a 3-2 party-line vote, allows one company to own a newspaper and one radio or TV station in the same market. Such a combination is allowable only in one of the 20 largest metropolitan areas. The TV station may not be among the top four in the market, and post-transaction, at least eight independent media voices must remain.

The Senate measure has 25 co-sponsors including both Democrat candidates for president, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. "We must ensure that we have an open media market that represents diverse voices throughout the country," Obama said after the vote. "The rules promoting the public interest and diversity in media ownership are too important for the FCC to accept an agenda supported by the Washington special interests that I have fought against for more than a year."

Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-HI, said it was clear that the FCC rushed its process in making he rule before the Christmas holiday. "The agency rolled back its rules preventing media concentration, despite getting a cautionary light from the Congress that more public comment and more attention to localism and minority ownership was needed before barreling ahead."

In addition, the committee also approved without debate or comment bills to free up $65 million in funding to help low-power TV stations make the transition to digital and to allow border full-power TV stations to continue in analog for five more years after the Feb. 17, 2009, transition to digital.

FCC chairman Martin told reporters after the vote that he was sensitive to the input of Congress, but said he thought it was "important to update our rules to reflect a changing media marketplace, and particularly the fact that the newspaper rule had not been changed since it was put in place in 1978 and the newspaper industry was in significant financial distress."

In addition to the Congressional action, the FCC’s rule has been taken to court by both broadcasters and activists. The broadcasters argue the rules violate its constitutional rights, while the activists side with the views of the senators.

"Our best chance to stop big media has just cleared a big hurdle," Free Press executive director Josh Silver said in response to the vote. "The Senate’s defense of quality journalism, local news and diverse and independent voices couldn’t happen at a more critical time." Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union supported the Senate’s action.