Senate votes to wipe out FCC’s new media ownership rules

The political assault on the FCC’s new media ownership rules now shifts to the House of Representatives after last week’s Senate approval of a resolution to repeal the entire slate of ownership measures passed by the commission last June 2.

Broadcasters, the FCC and many political leaders were surprised after the Senate voted 55 to 40 over the wishes of President Bush and the Republican leadership to wipe out the entire FCC regulatory initiative. The referendum came as a vote of no confidence in Michael K. Powell, the Republican FCC chairman who has staked his leadership on the new rules.

Republican leaders in the House have vowed to keep the resolution from reaching the floor. However, the Senate vote—representing a growing disdain in Congress for concentrated media ownership—was part of a multi-pronged attack that could still gain approval in other forms in the House.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, (D-N.D.), chief sponsor of the resolution, said: “I think [Powell] has made a horrible mistake. His leadership has led the commission to cave in to the special interests as quickly and as thoroughly as I’ve ever seen.”

The vote came on a “resolution of disapproval,” an arcane Senate procedure that can be used to veto the actions of a regulator. It was only the second time in history that the Senate has approved such a measure. Support for the resolution was said to be broader that the final vote reflected. Four of the five senators absent from the chamber, including three presidential candidates, said they would have voted for it.

On June 2, the five FCC commissioners voted 3 to 2 along party lines to pass new media ownership rules that would permit broadcast networks to buy more television stations, enabling them to reach 45 percent of the national audience, up from the current national cap of 35 percent. The changes would also allow a single corporation to own the top newspaper and television station in the same city in most U.S. markets, a situation known as “cross-ownership.”

Though the all-or-nothing resolution passed by the Senate faces a tough battle in the House, that body has already approved a measure— in the form of a rider to a spending bill—to rollback the ownership caps to 35 percent. The Senate is to consider a spending bill with a similar rider. Sen. Dorgan said he plans to introduce an additional rider that would reinstate the ban on newspaper-television station cross-ownership—a provision that would accomplish the same thing as his resolution.

“I happen to agree with the idea of having several different strategies,” Dorgan said of the multiple attempts now in play to overturn the will of the FCC majority.

Another factor is President Bush, who has threatened to veto legislation rescinding the FCC rules if it reaches his desk. It would be the president’s first veto in office. “We think the rules that the FCC came up with more accurately reflect the changing media landscape and the current state of network station ownership, while guarding against concentration in the marketplace,” said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman.

McClellan added: “I think that the (Senate) vote appears to show that there would not be enough votes there to overturn a possible veto.”

Gene Kimmelman, senior policy director for the Consumers Union, a group that has been one of the chief opponents to the new rules, said the Senate “clearly re-established the principle that separate ownership of dominant local newspapers and broadcasters is essential to preserve the checks and balances against media bias that our democracy relies upon.

“It’s now time for federal regulators to listen to Congress and the public and revamp its rules to promote more competition and diversity in local news and information,” he said.

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