WASHINGTON - June 24 - Calling it "an historic victory toward protecting diverse, independent and local media," Free Press today applauded the decision by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's dramatic loosening of media ownership rules. The court's ruling in the case, Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC, requires the agency to rewrite its controversial June 2003 decision relaxing the regulation of ownership of the newspaper, television and radio industries.
The Commission's decision, which sparked a public outcry from across the political spectrum and drew several Congressional rebukes (including one in the Senate as recently as Tuesday), is now firmly rejected. "The public, Congress, and the Courts now speak in one voice against the agency's efforts to loosen public interest media ownership limits," said Free Press Managing Director Josh Silver. "This is a tremendous victory for the millions of citizens who have been writing, emailing and calling the FCC and Congress to protest the lax media ownership protections. The Court's decision affirms what citizens have been saying: Protecting our democratic media system means stopping Big Media from getting even bigger."
The appellate ruling has specifically rejected the major rule changes concerning the cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations and the concentration of broadcast ownership in local markets. Together, these rules would have allowed one company to own three TV stations, 8 radio stations, and the monopoly newspaper in a single market. Both rules have been sent back to the Commission on the grounds that the evidence and reasoning presented did not justify the changes as serving the public interest. The Court has issued nothing short of a comprehensive reversal, denying the FCC's logic and evidence on virtually every count.
In particular, the Court took aim at the agency's faulty methodology. The so-called Diversity Index, a key tool used by the agency to weigh the relative influence of various media channels on local publics, was rejected by the Court in accordance with arguments by public interest analysts and attorneys that it was hopelessly flawed.
Critically, the Court rejected the Commission's primary defense that Congress had ordered a gradual loosening of ownership rules in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In the year since the original decision, the FCC argued that ownership limits should be removed unless evidence could be shown to warrant their retention. The Court has reversed that burden of proof. Public interest ownership limits should be kept in place unless sufficient evidence can be shown to warrant their removal.
"We call on the FCC to make the effort to get it right this time," said Free Press founder and media scholar Robert McChesney. "Media ownership rules should protect the public interest, not the pocket books of media giants."
The court's decision does not affect a White House-negotiated deal to lift the national broadcast audience cap - the maximum percent of national television households that a single company can reach with its stations - from 35 percent to 39 percent. That deal, attached to a 2004 spending bill, was signed into law by President Bush in January.