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Bush Administration Backs Martin on Media-Ownership Vote

In a letter from Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to the leaders of the Senate and its Commerce Commitee, the Bush administration made it clear that it supports Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin's effort to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban.

According to a copy obtained by B&C of a letter from the secretary to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Gutierrez said the administration "opposes S. 2332 or any other attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."

The letter was dated Dec. 4 and was in response to the introduction of the bill by co-sponsors Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.). That bill would have prevented the FCC from voting Tuesday on the media-ownership change by requiring at least a 90-day comment period on Martin's proposal, which was made public Nov. 13.

The "any other attempt" likely applies to another threatened bill that would invalidate the rule change, but only after the FCC had voted to approve it. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) also threatened to defund the deregulatory move.

In his letter, Gutierrez called loosening the ban a boon to the public interest. "The FCC has crafted changes that appropriately take into account the myriad of news and information outlets that exist today," he said. "Modernization of the media-ownership rules will help to protect the public interst by providing greater financial viability to news and broadcast outlets struggling to survive in this competitive environment."

Also sent copies of the letter were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and vice chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Those last two were among a group of 25 senators who told Martin Monday to delay the vote or they would push the bill that would nullify it. Inouye also promised to try to overhaul the FCC next year.

Martin -- who voted for loosening radio- and TV-station multiple-ownership caps, as well as removing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban altogether in the FCC's 2003 attempt to revise its rules -- said this time around that he would only loosen the ban and not touch the other caps. That has not been enough to win over Democrats and a few Republicans, who argued that any more consolidation is too much or that the FCC has not sufficiently gauged the impact of current consolidation on diversity and localism.

Martin pointed out that at Tuesday's meeting, he also hoped to approve items addressing program diversity and localism, including making it easier for minorities to own and/or run stations and seeking some way to quantify and encourage local programming. He has kept to the Dec. 18 timetable despite heavy pressure from the Hill and anti-consolidation activists.