Senators Take FCC to Task Over Ownership Vote

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain wants to let regulators impose strict media ownership limits and says he intends to offer such a measure soon.

At a hearing June 4, the Arizona Republican asked each of the five FCC commissioners if the Communications Act would let them, in effect, re-do the media ownership limits they voted on Monday. McCain was specifically referring to the TV national audience cap, which the FCC raised June 2 to 45 percent.

McCain opposes measures to return to return to the cap back to 35 percent, but said he's not sure what the number should be.

The FCC's landmark decision will also allow more newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership and television duopolies, particularly in mid-sized and large markets. Television triopolies will be permitted in the largest markets.

McCain asked FCC Chairman Michael Powell if he felt being required to review the ownership rules every two years was excessive. Powell said the two-year requirement is "destabilizing" for the agency and suggested a five-year break between media ownership reviews.

McCain seemed interested in pursuing this change, along with the TV cap, in legislation. He said he would include language in the upcoming FCC reauthorization to clarify that the agency may re-impose ownership restrictions as part of its review when it finds such actions would be in the public interest.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced legislation putting the nationwide cap back at 35 percent. McCain said will to let the committee mark it up next week, even though he opposed the bill.

A similar bill has been introduced in the House, but its fate is even murkier because McCain's counterpart, Rep. Billy Tauzin, is supportive of the FCC changes.

Taking a different tack, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said June 3 he would file a "resolution of disapproval" to block the media rules from becoming effective.

At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, lawmakers of both parties took shots at the commission.

"I believe the FCC decision rings the dinner bell for the big media conglomerates who are salivating to make a meal out of the nation's many small media outlets," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), said she was "frosted" FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy's talk of the public's "fear" and misunderstanding of the media ownership issue.

"Just because you sit behind a microphone does not make you smarter," Boxer said. "It's an insult."