WASHINGTON—Turns out Jan. 19 will be an inauguration day of sorts—inaugurating the Supreme Court's first consideration of an appeal of the FCC's media ownership rule deregulation.
It will be the fourth oral argument of the January session, with one hour of argument scheduled, though that could spill over depending on the how the arguments and Justices' questioning goes.
In September 2019, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit threw out, or at least threw back to the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai's effort to deregulate broadcast ownership and address a lack of diversity. The court said the agency "did not adequately consider the effect its sweeping rule changes will have on ownership of broadcast media by women and racial minorities," something the court had said in a previous media ownership ruling that the FCC had to do next time around.
The court vacated the FCC's elimination of the newspaper-broadcast and the radio-TV cross-ownership rules; its decision to allow dual station ownership in markets with fewer than eight independent voices after that duopoly created an opportunity for ownership of two of the top four stations in a market on a case-by-case basis (the FCC was not calling it a waiver); and its elimination of attribution of joint sales agreements as ownership, as well as its creation of a diversity incubator program.
In April 2020, broadcasters and newspaper publishers petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit decision.
Echoing the FCC's petition for review also filed in April, media petitioners said that outdated ownership rules remain in force because a divided panel of the court has prevented the FCC from implementing "necessary adjustments to its ownership rules" that the FCC concluded would serve the public interest.
The FCC said that it has been trying to grant the ownership dereg for 17 years, thwarted by a series of decisions by a divided panel of the Third Circuit. It said the most recent decision to vacate "a host of significant rule changes" was based "solely on the ground that the agency had not adequately analyzed the rules’ likely effect on female and minority ownership of broadcast stations."
The FCC argues that for those 17 years the court has blocked it from exercising its mandate by Congress to repeal or modify any ownership rule it determines is no longer in the public interest.
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