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Editorial: Away Game

Democrats were piling on FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in absentia last week. The chairman was away in Dubai trying to help the U.S. delegation defend the forces of Internet openness against encroaching government control, an issue in the international realm that carries that rarest of D.C. commodities: bipartisan support.

But the pile-on was on the media-ownership front, where the chairman is attempting to loosen (but not lift) a ban for some (but not all) broadcast/newspaper combos. Back home in Washington, that news was being treated as a threat to the health and safety of both children and puppies.

Only threatening to trade Redskins star quarterback Robert Griffin III could have produced a similar outcry from Senate Democrats, minority groups and communications unions for what are limited moves that still leave all the local ownership caps in place, and even boost local ownership limits by making some joint sales agreements subject to those local caps.

This page is not ecstatic with the proposal either because it leaves some of the cross-ownership limits in place (ironically, the ones in smaller markets, where stations and papers are more in need of combining their investments in news and information in order to preserve their voices). But this relentless attack on the chairman—as though the item was some covert, surprise attack on diversity—is off-base.

Here are some loaded “Have they stopped beating their wives?” questions from a transcript of an interview between Bill Moyers, a veteran Big Media critic, and consolidation critic Craig Aaron of Free Press, which has threatened to sue the FCC again if it proceeds with the ownership rules change.

Moyers: “What does it say to you that the chairman of the FCC is running a secret process that would, in effect, gut media-ownership limits?”

And then there’s one about the chairman’s circulation of the item for a vote last month. Moyers: “Why the rush?”

Secret process? Really? The FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking a year ago, signaling its plans. There has actually been voluminous comment. “Rush?” The FCC has been working for five years, on and off, to come up with a new proposal, and it is two years late on its quadrennial review of its rules, to which the ownership item is responsive, as well as to a court remand.

We will concede that the FCC would have been wiser, politically, to complete independent diversity studies before making its proposal, rather than relying on broader media-ownership studies and its biennial state of ownership report. But we understand the delay in the studies may have been a matter of funding.

In any event, two former FCC chairmen—Democrat Reed Hundt and Republican Michael Powell, the first African-American chairman—are on the record as conceding they both thought the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban should be scrapped, but weren’t about to run afoul of Congress and that body’s fears of the increased power of more powerful broadcasters in their home districts and states.

So here are members of Congress weighing in again, warning the FCC not to vote the item, and in one case even threatening a congressional resolution of disapproval if it proceeds. The initial criticism was about openness and transparency, but that one is a hard sell. Then it was failure to vet the impact on diversity. That has more legs, but still falls short. Then it morphed to an early Christmas present for Rupert Murdoch to potentially buy The Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune. But that doesn’t really work either, since the FCC is presuming that a top-four station and a major paper would not be in the public interest, even in the top 20 markets where it is lifting the absolute ban. Yes, maybe the Fox station in one of those markets is ranked No. 5, and the deal might be easier under the new rules, but if so, maybe it should be allowed.

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn has secured an extra 30 days of comment on the diversity report, which effectively pushed a vote on media ownership to early next year at the soonest.

It has been more than a decade since then- FCC chairman Powell tried to loosen the regulations. Even by then, the marketplace had become much more competitive. Now, the game has changed entirely with over-the-top video, tablets, smartphones and online Web news operations pulling down Pulitzers.

It would be a shame if the media flat-earthers who refuse to see the new marketplace as it is won the day.