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Senate Vetoes Media Rules

FCC logo in tv monitor, with newspapers
AP
The Senate approved a resolution Tuesday to repeal media ownership rules that critics say could lead to a wave of mergers and ultimately stifle diversity and local viewpoints in news and entertainment.

Defying a White House veto threat, the Senate voted 55-40 to undo changes to Federal Communications Commission regulations governing ownership of newspapers and television and radio stations

Critics of the rules, led by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., say the resolution was needed because the FCC regulations give large media companies too much control over what people see, hear and read. The White House has threatened to veto the measure.

In June, the Republican-dominated FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to ease the decades-old ownership restrictions. The changes included allowing a single company to own TV stations reaching nearly half the nation's viewers and combinations of newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same area.

Major media companies said the changes were needed because the old regulations hindered their ability to grow and compete in a market altered by cable television, satellite broadcasting and the Internet.

But lawmakers from both parties and a broad range of groups criticized the changes, saying they could lead to a wave of mergers and ultimately stifle diversity and local viewpoints in news and entertainment.

On Sept. 3, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia temporarily blocked the rules from taking effect the following day as scheduled. Several other legal challenges to the rules from broadcasters and consumer groups are pending.

The Senate resolution is a legislative maneuver, also called a "congressional veto," that has been used successfully only once before. In 2001, the Republican-controlled Congress and White House used it to repeal workplace safety regulations issued late in the Clinton administration.

To succeed, the resolution will also need majority approval in the House as well as President Bush's signature or enough votes — two-thirds of both chambers — to override the threatened veto.

Opponents of the media ownership changes initially appeared to have little chance of stopping the rules, but their efforts have steadily gained momentum.

The House dealt the FCC a surprising setback in July when it passed a broad spending bill that included a provision to block the commission from allowing individual companies to own TV stations reaching up to 45 percent of the nation's viewers, instead of the current 35 percent. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a similar measure last week.

Before the House vote, the White House also threatened to veto any final bill containing language that would roll back the national cap. Republicans who support the new rules hope that threat will help them strip the provision from a final House-Senate compromise bill.

Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, says the risk to free over-the-air television is one reason his agency relaxed rules governing ownership of newspapers and television and radio stations.

Powell, defending the FCC decision in a series of recent TV appearances, has said the old rules made it hard for broadcast networks to compete with cable and satellite subscription services.

But Gene Kimmelman, senior policy director for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said the major TV networks don't need the help.

"Free TV and pay TV are completely intertwined," he said Monday. "A handful of corporations own and control the vast majority of both."