FCC Chair Expected To Push Ownership Rule

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in April 2005.
AP
Despite intense political pressure, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve a proposal Tuesday that will allow broadcasters in the nation's 20 largest media markets to also own a newspaper - overturning a 32-year-old ban.

Republican Chairman Kevin Martin says his plan is a "relatively minor loosening" of the rule, but it has received a considerable amount of opposition.

On Monday, 25 senators, including four Republicans, sent him a letter threatening that if he goes ahead with the vote, they will move legislation to revoke the rule and nullify the commission's action.

But according to a letter that surfaced late Monday, it is clear the chairman has the full support of the White House. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Dec. 4 expressing the administration's opposition to legislation approved by the Senate Commerce Committee that would have delayed a vote.

The secretary wrote that the "the current ownership rules are significantly outdated in the modern media marketplace" and that the FCC has "crafted changes that appropriately take into account the myriad of news and information outlets that exist today."

Gutierrez wrote that the administration opposes the Senate bill "or any other attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."

The cross-ownership ban was approved by the FCC in 1975 to serve "the twin goals of diversity of viewpoints and economic competition." The FCC at the time noted that "it is unrealistic to expect true diversity from a commonly owned station-newspaper combination."

Opponents of the ban say in the past decade there has been an explosion of news outlets thanks to cable television and the Internet and that such restrictions are no longer necessary. Ban supporters say there may be new outlets, but there has been no corresponding increase in news gatherers and producers, especially at the local level.

The agency first tried to loosen the ban in 2003, but the move was rejected by a federal appeals court. Since then, the commissioners have been trying to craft a new set of rules that will survive judicial scrutiny.

Under Martin's proposal, one entity would be permitted to own a newspaper and one broadcast station in the same market. But it must be among the 20 largest in the nation and following the transaction, at least eight independently owned-and-operated media voices must remain. In addition, the television station may not be among the top four in the market.

Martin's proposal is opposed by Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who also voted against loosening media ownership rules in 2003. The commission's other two Republicans, Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate, have been more receptive to broadcast media deregulation.

The vote is scheduled for Tuesday's meeting, slated to begin at 10:30 a.m. When the vote will actually occur is tough to determine. Last month's meeting was delayed 12 hours while the commissioners and staff worked out the details of various proposals behind closed doors.

The meeting is scheduled to be broadcast on C-SPAN3.
By John Dunbar