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Media Ownership Rules Back Into Play

Lawmaker Takes Aim at FCC, Martin

William Triplett

A senior lawmaker introduced legislation on Wednesday to restore media ownership rules that the Federal Communications Commission recently voted to loosen -- and then blasted FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin for moving quickly late last year to vote on lifting the long-standing ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.0306 01

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the FCC, introduced on Wednesday a "resolution of disapproval" of the commission's Dec. 18 vote to relax in important ways the ban on a single entity owning a newspaper and broadcast TV station in the same market. Dorgan called the FCC's move "arrogant" and a "cave-in to corporate interests."

The FCC's vote would allow cross-ownership of newspaper and TV assets in the nation's top 20 media markets. If Dorgan's resolution is approved, it would essentially void the FCC's vote.

Dorgan said that preventing the relaxation of the rule from going into effect is necessary given that the "galloping concentration that's been happening in radio and television is unhealthy."

The top-20-market limitation also has "significant loopholes for mergers outside" those markets, Dorgan added.

"The FCC should be the referee" of media concentration, he said, "but instead, it's been shaking the pompons for more concentration."

Dorgan bluntly questioned Martin's stated reasons for relaxing the ban, and he was also critical of the way Martin announced his intent to revise the decades-old policy.

Martin wrote about his intentions in a New York Times op-ed piece one month before the vote. "That's a curious way for an FCC chairman to announce a rule change," Dorgan said in a conference call with reporters.


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In the piece, Martin noted that newspaper revenues have been declining and numerous papers have folded as a result.

"He's waltzing around the country worrying that newspapers aren't going to make it," Dorgan said. "They're not in trouble. Most are still making healthy incomes."

Like a standard bill, the resolution will be taken up by the Senate Commerce Committee. If passed, it will move on to the Senate floor for a full vote. Dorgan said he already has approval from the committee's top two leaders to proceed with the resolution, which has 13 co-sponsors, including Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

So far, no companion resolution exists in the House. And President George Bush could ultimately veto the resolution, undercutting its impact.

But Josh Silver, head of activist group Free Press, which supports Dorgan's effort, said that even if the resolution is approved only by the Senate, "It will send a strong message."

The Senate has 60 legislative days to act on the resolution. But given the reduced number of legislative days due to the election year, the deadline could extend into summer or later.

The resolution is the third formal challenge to the FCC vote. Watchdog group Media Access Project and the National Assn. of Broadcasters have each taken the vote to court for opposing reasons. MAP thinks the FCC loosened the ban too much, while the NAB argues that the rule change didn't go far enough.

© 2008 Variety

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