No matter what the Federal Communications Commission does today with regard to media ownership -- and it is likely to do the wrong thing -- members of Congress are ready to push back. And that sets up a clash between Congress and the White House that will be a vital fight over the future of American democratic discourse.
The Bush-Cheney administration wants FCC chair Kevin Martin and the Republican majority on the commission to approve a rewrite of media-ownership rules that would allow big media companies to own daily and weekly newspapers, radio stations, television stations, cable systems and key internet news sites in an individual community.
There is no longer any question that Martin, a Republican operative with close ties to President Bush and Vice President Cheney who has been talked about as a likely GOP candidate for the governorship of his native North Carolina, is moving at the behest of the White House.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has already written Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressing the administration's aggressive opposition to efforts by key senators to delay the FCC vote. The Senate Commerce Committee has approved the call for blocking the vote until the FCC actually does serious research into the harm that would be done to diversity of ownership, local news coverage and the quality of the discourse in communities across the county and by extension to the national debate.
Gutierrez told the senators that the "the current ownership rules are significantly outdated in the modern media marketplace" and argued that Martin has "crafted changes that appropriately take into account the myriad of news and information outlets that exist today."
The Commerce Secretary made it clear that the administration is gearing up for a fight on behalf of the big media companies -- and big political donors -- that want the change. According to Gutierrez, the administration is ready to fight any "attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."
But not all Republicans are going along with the White House.
For senior Republican senators -- Ted Stevens of Alaska, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Larry Craig of Idaho -- have joined 21 Democrats is signing a letter to Martin urging a delay in the rule changes.
"When you proposed a new rule on the effects of communications towers on migratory birds, you allowed for a 90 day comment period. How could you decide to allow 90 days for a migratory bird rule and then shortchange the public on the media ownership rule?" the senators ask Martin in the letter.
But the letter is no list of questions. It is a blunt declaration by key members of Congress -- including the chairman of the Commerce Committee that has jurisdiction over the FCC, Inouye and the vice chairman, Stevens -- that if Martin and the FCC go ahead with the rule changes, the senators will "immediately move legislation that will revoke and nullify the proposed rule."
"We are notifying you and others of this proposed action in order to make certain you understand the consequences of ignoring the need for and the right of the American people to play a constructive role in attempts by a federal agency to change rules that have substantial impact on the American people," the senators write. "In light of this, we request and expect that you will postpone the action scheduled for December 18, 2007."
In addition to Inouye, Stevens, Lott, Snowe and Craig, the signers of the letter are the following Democratic senators: Kerry (MA), Wyden (OR), Cantwell (WA), Conrad (ND), McCaskill (MO), Pryor (AR), Lincoln (AR), Casey (PA), Feinstein (CA), Reed (RI), Feingold, (WI) Tester (MT), Boxer (CA), Obama (IL), Dodd (CT), Biden (DE), Clinton (NY), and Nelson (FL). Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a longtime champion of media reform, is also a signer.
It is notable that all of the Democratic senators who are seeking the White House have signed on. Additionally, Obama, who has taken up media issues with more gusto that the others, has sent a separate letter to Martin that was cosigned by John Kerry.
Thus, even if the Bush White House keeps pressing the matter, the rule changes -- which are all but certain to face court challenges -- also face the potential political challenge posed by a change in administration and in the partisan balance of the FCC.
In effect, Martin's days as chairman are likely to be numbered. That's why he is rushing ahead with these rule changes. It is also why the efforts to delay and overturn his initiatives take on additional meaning.
Put another way: It is fair to say that today is the beginning point, not the end, of the fight for media diversity and a democratic discourse.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.
© 2007 The Nation