Published on Monday, June 2, 2003 by the Boston Herald
FCC Decision on Media Unlikely to be Last Step
by Greg Gatlin
Activists say the battle over reforming the nation's media ownership laws doesn't end with today's Federal Communications Commission vote. It's just the beginning.
The FCC is expected to vote today to ease long-standing rules governing ownership of newspapers, TV and radio stations.
The rules limit the number of TV stations a company can own, prevent big networks from merging and prohibit companies from owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market.
Today's vote will likely fall along party lines, with the three Republican commissioners indicating they support lifting some ownership limits, including a ban on one company owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city. The two Democratic commissioners are opposed.
The broadcast networks argue that the decades-old rules were written in a time when there were far fewer media outlets and are outdated in an age of hundreds of cable and satellite channels and Internet sites.
Proponents say easing the rules won't necessarily lead to less local news or diversity in programming. Allowing broadcasters to buy more stations would help them compete with cable and satellite operators by expanding their distribution system, they say.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said current rules may not withstand First Amendment scrutiny, and that the courts have ordered the FCC to justify those rules, or eliminate them.
But deregulation opponents say they have no intention of letting the fight end today. They plan to battle on in the courts, and on Capitol Hill.
Consumer groups claim the issue is gaining traction with growing numbers of Americans of all political persuasions. Those groups have been sounding the alarm about the threat of concentration of media power in fewer corporate hands.
Last week, small groups of protesters demonstrated outside broadcast stations around the country. Activists say a half-million people have sent electronic postcards to the FCC, opposing rule changes.
Unlikely bedfellows on both sides of the political fence are rallying against the changes - from the National Rifle Association and the Family Research Council to the CodePink women's peace movement and the National Organization for Women.
``We're immediately going to mobilize and focus on Congress,'' said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. ``It says an awful lot when groups both on the left and right think the media is too tightly controlled and are fearful that their voices aren't being heard.''
But some media analysts say opponents don't stand much of a chance in Congress or the courts, once the FCC has its say.
``I never bet against congressional inaction,'' said Rudy Baca, media analyst with the Washington-based Precursor Group. ``To actually get Congress to move forward, introduce legislation and get it passed is highly unlikely.''
Baca predicts the rule changes will indeed wind up in court - only he says the courts will scrap the rules completely as arbitrary.
One of the current rules prohibits a company from owning TV stations reaching more than 35 percent of U.S. households. Today, the FCC is expected to up that cap to 45 percent. Baca says that number is arbitrary and will be struck down by the courts.
Meanwhile, opponents of media ownership deregulation may not be the only ones to file suit. Some experts expect the broadcast networks will sue as well, arguing that the FCC didn't go far enough in its rulemaking.
News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group, Viacom Inc., owner of CBS, and General Electric's NBC have all asked the FCC to scrap the rules, rather than just ease them. They argue that the rules no longer serve any public interest and that antitrust laws are more than adequate to regulate consolidation.
``They'll deny it, but Fox, General Electric-NBC and Viacom-CBS are likely to go to court soon after the ink dries on Monday's decision,'' Chester said. ``They have worked in a coalition urging the elimination of all the rules, including TV ownership caps. They will go to court right away.''
Mark Cooper, research director with the Consumer Federation of America, says legal challenges will focus on the substance of the rule changes and the FCC process in coming up with them. He says the FCC's proposed rule changes are ``riddled with inconsistencies.''
The rule preventing the top two TV stations in a market from merging would be maintained, he said, but a top TV station could merge with a major newspaper. ``If you're telling me that each TV station is so important to the dissemination of information that you can't let them merge, my question is, what about newspapers,'' Cooper said.
Cooper says he's looking for newspaper publishers or broadcasters to file suit, rather than just advocacy groups. He doesn't expect any suits would be filed until sometime this summer, after the FCC publishes its rule changes.
``I want to be careful about the plaintiffs,'' he said. ``I need a citizen businessman to step up.''
Still, Chester and others say they're focusing their battle plan on Capitol Hill.
``We want to take this energy that's been created (recently) and focus it on legislation that restores some limits on corporate media power,'' he said. ``The fact is, only Congress can restore some meaningful rules and safeguards.''
Copyright 2003 Copyright Boston Herald