In a rare rebuke of the Federal Communications Commission, a Senate panel Thursday voted to throw out a new FCC rule allowing a newspaper to own a TV or radio station in the nation's Top 20 media markets. The effort was led by Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat highly critical of media concentration.
Now that the Senate Commerce Committee has voted, the measure goes to the full Senate. Dorgan's bill has 25 sponsors, including Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, and he envisions passage in both the Senate and House, though President Bush has signaled he will veto it. Dorgan, speaking to reporters, said: "We have five or six major corporations in this country that determine, for the most part, what Americans see, hear, and read every day. I don't think that's healthy for our country." When asked about a tentative deal for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to buy a third major New York paper, Newsday, while also owning two New York City TV stations, Dorgan said it was "another example of concentration that I think is unhealthy." The corporation already owns the New York Post and Wall Street Journal , and, according to the FCC, owns the TV properties under waiver provisions. Dorgan said he doesn't buy the argument that the Internet and cable TV allow for many media voices, saying it's the "same ventriloquist" behind many media outlets. "Diverse, independent, and local media sources are essential to ensuring that the public has access to a variety of information," he added.
The controversy arose last December, when the FCC announced it was loosening restrictions, dating to 1975, on cross-media ownership. The new rule requires a newspaper acquiring a broadcast property in one of the top markets to meet certain criteria. If it buys a TV station, for example, there must be at least eight independently owned "major media voices" in the market after the purchase and the station must not be among the top four in the market. A "major media voice" is a large paper or TV station.
When the rule change was considered, the FCC split 3 to 2, with Republican commissioners favoring it and Democrats opposed. One Democrat said the rule change would "make George Orwell proud," referring to the author who famously wrote: "Big Brother is watching you."
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, though, has defended the rule change as needed at a time when newspapers are struggling. At least 300 daily papers have stopped publishing during the past 30 years, and circulation and ad revenues have dropped precipitously in recent years at about half of all U.S. dailies, the FCC said December 18 in announcing the rule change. Dorgan counters that there's "nothing in Martin's job description that says he's the newspaper referee in America."
It's unusual for Congress to undo an agency rule. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez waded into the controversy April 1. He wrote in a letter to Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, that the Bush administration "strongly opposes any attempt to overturn these rules by legislative means" and suggesting a veto would follow.
From Dorgan: "The president's popularity ratings are below 30 percent, and he promises to veto almost everything these days. My hope is that at some point, he'd decide on an issue like this that he wants to stand with the American people."