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Onward to Richmond

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps got his way. After he jumped up and down and threatened to hold his own hearing on media ownership, Chairman Michael Powell gave in, saying he would schedule a hearing with all the official trappings in Richmond, Va., in February. Why Richmond? To save money, says Powell. With the Virginia capital just 100 miles down I-95, the FCC won't have to pay for a lot of hotel rooms and airline tickets.

We understand what Copps is trying to do: Get some thoughts on media-ownership deregulation from the common folk outside of Washington on the theory that wisdom grows proportionately with the distance from Washington. But that's a romantic notion. Does Copps really think that people in the provinces think much about media consolidation? At best, what you will get in any given town are local fronts for the Washington lobbyists and groups that spend their lives grappling with the issues. In Richmond, you probably would be able to stir up a better discussion on McClellan's Peninsula Campaign of 1862 than you will on the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

As Powell hinted in grudgingly agreeing to the hearing, it won't add much of value to the record. That is in part because this FCC has already taken extraordinary steps to analyze the media marketplace and build a record that will lead not only to reasonable action this spring but also to a new set of rules that may withstand judicial scrutiny. In the past, the courts easily sniffed out that ownership rules were political compromises and rightly shot them down. Powell is determined not to let that happen again.

We understand that big media can be too big and that there may be a need for some restrictions. But the burden of proof is on those who would regulate, who would place hobbles on companies and entrepreneurs for fear of what might happen (there is already a Justice Department and antitrust laws to handle what does happen), who would deprive someone of the right to speak through any medium anywhere. That proof might be out there, but it doesn't require a road trip to Richmond.

Wrong Solution

The civil libertarians and the guardians of the two-party political system as we know it had their days in court last week to challenge the newly minted campaign-finance reform law. "At stake in this litigation is nothing less than the future of political speech in our nation," the plaintiffs argued in their brief. The law "constitutes ... the most threatening frontal assault on core First Amendment values in a generation. The law suppresses speech about political issues—speech indisputably at the heart of the First Amendment—and fundamentally undermines the role of national and state political parties in our electoral system."

Strong stuff, with which we agree. But, if the courts strike down the law, we will not be in the mood to celebrate.

The solution may have been the wrong one, but the problem is real and remains. All the money pouring into campaigns from corporations and wealthy individuals tips the law and policy in favor of the corporations and wealthy individuals. But that fact does not justify restrictions on anyone's ability to fully support candidates and causes. It certainly does not justify singling out one medium for special mistreatment.

What we find ironic is the National Association of Broadcasters' sudden rediscovery of the First Amendment. When the FCC tries to micromanage content for political ends or censor people for some dirty words or provocative ideas, the broadcasters' principal lobby turns mute. Eminen. No comment. Sarah Jones. No comment. But when hundreds of millions in political advertising is at stake, the NAB suddenly finds its voice and its pocketbook (those big-time lawyers don't come cheap). Perhaps, when this version of campaign-finance reform is history and the flow of political dollars again assured, the NAB will be secure enough to stand up for broadcasters whenever their First Amendment rights are challenged.