Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made it clear Wednesday that they will do whatever they can to try to stop Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin from holding a December vote on media-ownership rule changes.
If Martin does try to "ram through" that vote, Dorgan said, they vowed to use a rarely seen procedural move, a resolution of disapproval, to invalidate it -- so rare that the first time it was used was the last time the FCC tried to deregulate ownership.
The Senate voted to approve a similar bill when the FCC passed deregulatory rules back in 2003 -- a bill also introduced by Dorgan and Lott. But the Republican-controlled House did not vote on it, and it was superseded anyway by a court's staying and eventual remand of the rules back to the FCC for better explanation.
It is that review Martin was hoping to vote on by the end of the year after 18 months of review and hearings and comment.
But Dorgan and Lott, at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday, said that would be a rush to judgment. They also said they were working on other possible legislative efforts, including requiring the FCC to complete a separate proceeding on the effects of consolidation on broadcast localism.
Dorgan said that they could have that bill done in the next week or so. The resolution disapproving the FCC rules would have to wait for the December FCC vote, if it happens.
Dorgan, as he has in the past, decried the "voice-tracking" practice in radio that allows a DJ to talk about a beautiful day in the Midwest from a basement in Baltimore. The issue was fresh in the Senators mind, with the press conference coming immediately after a Senate Commerce Commitee hearing, of which he is a member, on the future of radio. Media ownership had been a topic of much discussion.
The two senators last week sent a letter to Martin asking him to slow down so that the FCC could do more fact-finding and public vetting of the effects of consolidation on localism and minorities and women.
Asked how much Republican support Lott had on his move to rein in consolidation, Lott said the administration didn't agree with them last time, adding, "Sometimes you start out as the Lone Ranger and you wake up with 62 votes."
Asked about opposition from the Bush administration to his effort, he extended the popular culture metaphor, with a southern twist, saying: "Frankly, my dear, I don't really care a whole lot what the administration might think." But he also said he didn't think this would be an issue the administration would be pressuring him on. "This is just something I think is right vs. wrong," he added.
Dorgan suggested that there was "very substantial support" for slowing the FCC down, adding, "I have had Republicans and certainly a lot of Democrats talk to me about being very interested in supporting this effort to make sure that the public interest is not thwarted in this process that the FCC is about to embark upon," although he declined to give any names. He said there could be other initiatives, and that there would definitely be a hearing in the Commerce Committee.
Lott conceded that media ownership was not an issue he was getting a lot of constituent calls about, but he suggested that the issue was personal. He said he used to have his own local weekly radio show, Panther Speaks, back in Pascagoula, Miss., where they talked about the local weather and the local grocery store. "You can't get that anymore," he added. "That local station is piped in from I don't know where."
The senators clearly did not like Martin's timetable, but they did not have any specific one of their own.
Dorgan wants the commission to finish a separate localism proceeding opened by Martin's predecessor in 2003 to try to get the 2003 rule changes adopted by separating the content issues from the procedural ones. According to an FCC source, Martin plans to release a report on localism in the next couple of weeks, having decided to roll those findings into the general rule review rather than on a separate track.
Dorgan also wants proceedings on public-interest standards and minority issues. "The fact is that the FCC has not moved forward in a serious, thoughtful way to allow people to weigh in on those issues," he said. Then he wants to turn to ownership issues, which, he added, should not be further relaxation.
"It's not just about time," Lott said, "but what you do in that time," although he added that a delay of a vote until early next year would help. Dorgan said they were seeking "the right timing, the right process and the right result." For them, that result would be no further deregulation, with Dorgan adding that any relaxation of the rules "goes in the wrong direction."
The rules as proposed in 2003 would do away with the ban on new newspaper-broadcast combinations in the same market and allow a single owner to own more stations in smaller markets. The new rules, although they have not been released, would likely also do away with the cross-ownership ban, which even the courts suggested the FCC had justified scrapping, but might not loosen the duopoly rules if that was going to mean an immediate trip back to court by those who challenged the rules in the first place.
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.