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Owning the News

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/dorgan.jpgSen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) (WDCpix)

Congress and the White House are set on a crash course over a new federal rule allowing newspapers more freedom to buy up television and radio stations in the same community. The regulation — in fact, a form of deregulation — was passed by the GOP-led Federal Communications Commission in December, but bipartisan legislation to scrap it is now gaining steam in Congress.

The saga echoes a 2003 episode when the FCC similarly moved to relax the 33-year newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban. A court stepped in to kill those changes — but not before President George W. Bush vetoed congressional efforts to do the same. The same scenario could play out this year.

Congress_3795.jpg
Congress_3795.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

At its core, this conflict pits free-market proponents in the White House and the media industry against lawmakers and advocates pushing pro-consumer regulations. Supporters argue that the new consolidation rule will help a flailing newspaper industry remain competitive in an era when readers are abandoning papers for the Internet and “The Daily Show.” Critics, on the other hand, say the change would give single companies power to control the news content in a particular market, killing media diversity instead of fostering it.

Media experts see the new rule as a last-chance effort by the administration to push its deregulation agenda while the FCC panel — which leans in favor of whatever party occupies the White House — retains a Republican majority.

“It’s pure politics at this stage,” said Clay Calvert, communications professor at Penn State University and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment. “I think Republicans figure that if this is going to get changed they’ve got to do it now at the FCC, just in case a Democratic administration comes in next.”

Under current law, companies may not own a newspaper and broadcast outlet in the same community. The new rule would scrap that prohibition in the country’s 20 largest media markets. On the five-member FCC panel, the rule passed 3 to 2 along strict party lines.

Kevin Martin, the GOP chairman of the FCC, said the change will help stabilize a sinking newspaper industry by freeing businesses to consolidate costs.

“Allowing cross-ownership may help to forestall the erosion in local news coverage by enabling companies to share these local news gathering costs across multiple media platforms,” Martin said in a statement following the vote.

But critics of the change wonder how giving one company control of more media outlets would diversify news coverage. At the front-lines of the opposition stands Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who sponsored a “resolution of disapproval” to scrap the new rule. Dorgan contends the FCC reached its decision for ideological reasons, ignoring public concern that the move would dilute local coverage.

“Our nation is best served when we have access to a variety of media sources,” Dorgan said in a statement announcing his bill. “Smaller and independent media outlets across the country provide local news that simply would not exist if large media conglomerates continue their consolidation efforts.”

The recent rule is the latest in a long string of media deregulations that have allowed the rise of several enormous corporate conglomerates. A 1996 telecommunications law signed by President Bill Clinton, for example, removed the cap on the number of radio stations one company can own nationwide. That change has allowed one corporation, Clear Channel Communications, to buy up roughly 1,200 stations in all 50 states.

That sort of consolidation has raised the concern of consumer groups, who argue that the public airwaves are no place to test the theories of free-market economics. Jon Bartholomew, media reform coordinator at Common Cause, pointed out that the goal of companies is to turn a profit, not to inform listeners about matters of public importance. “If they treat it like a business, they’ll cut corners every chance they get,” he said. “There’s never been evidence that [consolidation] improves the quality of the news.”

As a portrait of the potential dangers of consolidation, critics point to an episode in Minot, N.D. In the early hours of Jan. 18, 2002, a train in Minot spilled 210,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, unleashing a noxious cloud that killed one person. Police in Minot tried to alert the public about the accident via radio — but no one was answering the phones at the designated emergency broadcast station. It, along with every other commercial station in the community, was owned by Clear Channel.

The event led to charges that Clear Channel was pumping an automatic satellite feed without manning its emergency post — something the company denied. Consumer groups say that diversified ownership could have prevented the public-announcement delay.

“The role of the media in any democracy is to give the people the information they need,” Bartholomew said. “If you’ve got one company that dominates a particular market, you’re only going to get one side of the story.”

Under congressional rules, the Senate has 60 legislative days to pass disapprovals like Dorgan’s, giving lawmakers a few months to approve the proposal. The Senate Commerce Committee is set to consider the bill later this month.

Congress passed a similar disapproval in 2003 after then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, adopted several media consolidation rules. Bush vetoed that measure, but a court stepped in to kill the rules, claiming the commission had not provided evidence to justify the changes. A similar legal challenge has been filed against the new rule.

Consumer stakeholders are confident that Congress will pass Dorgan’s bill, though Bush is expected to veto it after. That would leave congressional leaders the unenviable task of rallying enough support to override the veto — something Congress has managed only once under this administration.

Complicating the saga, the broadcast industry is a powerhouse donor to Washington lawmakers, with television and radio stations doling out almost $2.7 million so far in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Topping the list of contributors is Clear Channel, which alone has given almost $336,000.

“The lobbying that’s going to go on here will be massive,” said Calvert, of Penn State.

Still, media consolidation is not the clear-cut partisan struggle that defines so many other issues in today’s Washington. It was a GOP-led Congress that voted to sink Powell’s rules in 2003, with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) a chief proponent of that push. Three Republicans, including Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign and is the ranking member of the Commerce Committee, have endorsed Dorgan’s bill. Other Republicans are expected to follow.

Genelle Balmas, communications professor at California State University, Fullerton, said congressional opposition to the new FCC rule could be fueled by discontent with the telecom consolidation law of 1996, which has disappointed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “The telecom companies argued that to innovate, they needed to get bigger and bigger, and that’s exactly what they did,” she said in an e-mail. “Rather than promoting competition, the bigger companies merely bought their smaller competitors or drove them out of business, resulting in fewer choices for consumers, higher prices and less competition.”

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