Congress may thwart FCC’s media ruling

For Immediate Release:

June 3, 2003

Contact:Michael S. Gerber

The Hill

Democratic lawmakers vowed to continue their fight against looser media ownership rules following the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision yesterday to press ahead with controversial deregulation.

“[This] will be seen as a decision that is both dumb and dangerous,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) at a press conference with senators from both sides of the aisle who opposed the new rules.
   
Dorgan is considering introducing legislation with Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that would block the FCC’s action.

Anger was not confined to the Senate or to the Democrats. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said: “A lot of Republicans, in fact probably most of the Republicans in Congress would not agree with this decision.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said in a statement:

“Now that the FCC has acted, Congress must step up and exercise its legislative and oversight responsibility to review these new media ownership rules and alter them in a manner that serves the public interest.”

FCC commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of lifting the prohibition on newspapers owning radio or television stations. The new regulations also allow companies to purchase more television stations nationwide. The rules had been in place for decades, and several lawmakers criticized the FCC for making such substantial changes.

“The weakening of the FCC media ownership rules will hurt localism, will reduce diversity, and will allow media monopolies to flourish,” said Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a statement. He also said a bipartisan group of lawmakers “is prepared to move forward” in its efforts to overturn the FCC rules. The new rules likely face court challenges as well.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced plans to hold a hearing Wednesday to hear from the five FCC commissioners.

“The FCC has spent considerable resources examining these issues, and the rules they adopted today appear to retain important limitations on media ownership,” McCain said in a statement. “These are complex decisions, however, and it is difficult to know exactly where to set these limits.”

Several senators also criticized the FCC actions, threatening to pass legislation that would effectively nullify parts of the FCC’s decision. Hollings, the ranking member on the Commerce Committee, is also sponsoring a bill with Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) that would ban a company from owning broadcast entities that reached more than 35 percent of the U.S. population. The new FCC rules raise that threshold to 45 percent.

But such proposals could face opposition in the House, where Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) supports the FCC’s media deregulation.

Tauzin commended the FCC for its decision, saying in a statement the commission had “taken a big step toward removing the regulatory muzzle from American broadcasters.”

The FCC voted along party lines, with the commission’s two Democrats opposing Republican Chairman Michael Powell and the two other Republicans on the panel.

Powell defended the decision, saying action was necessary because courts had already begun to reject the last version of the rules and would have killed them completely had changes not been made.

But Powell did leave the ultimate decision to legislators. “Leaving things unaltered, regardless of changes in the competitive landscape, is a course that only Congress can legitimately chart,” he said.

The dissenting commissioners issued a statement criticizing the decision and the process that preceded it, saying more time was needed to examine the rules. More than 150 members of Congress and a diverse group of organizations from across the political spectrum sent 750,000 comments to the FCC, more than 99 percent opposed to allowing more consolidation, according to the Democratic commissioners.

“Today the FCC empowers American’s new media elite with unacceptable levels of influence over the media on which our society and our democracy so heavily depend,” said Michael Copps, one of the two Democratic commissioners who voted against the rules, in a statement.

Last week, consumer advocate and possible presidential candidate Ralph Nader urged the FCC inspector general to postpone the decision and investigate claims that industry groups paid for more than 2,500 junkets worth $2.8 million for FCC commissioners and staff.

Nader, pointing to a recent report issued by The Center for Public Integrity, said in a May 29 letter to FCC inspector general H. Walker Feaster, “… this chronic, private, unseen, plush and intensive fraternizing between the regulators and the regulated takes on new and disturbing meanings.”

In an interview with The Hill, Nader said, “The fraternization is so completely out of control that it borders on incest.”

Feaster said he does not have the authority to postpone FCC decisions and indicated that the inspector general is reviewing Nader’s request. FCC ethics officials analyze all travel requests before regulators are given clearance to attend industry functions, he added.

He said he has not seen evidence that clearances weren’t given, adding that the inspector general will probably make a decision on whether to launch an investigation by the end of this week.

Sarah Lesher and Bob Cusack contributed to this report.