The End Is Near?

After 18 months of hearings and studies and community input, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is about to propose that newspaper-broadcast cross-ownerships be allowed in the same city. This is a very old issue that has been successfully opposed by public-interest groups and others that fail to recognize that there is no good reason to keep the rule around.

The cross-ownership ban was a bad rule when it began 30 years ago, and since the explosion of cable television and then the Internet, it is harder than ever to argue that cross-ownership perilously reduces the number of significant voices in a community. In fact, the stations that are part of cross-ownerships that do exist (allowed to remain because they existed before the rule did) are usually quality stations.

Since 2003, when a Philadelphia federal appeals court sent the FCC's rule rewrite back with instructions to better justify its various changes, the FCC has been forced to regulate by waiver. That can't go on forever.

Now, after a series of meetings with the public nationwide to discuss media-ownership issues, Martin intends to make his proposals public, including almost certainly removing the ban. He plans to issue the document Nov. 13, and allow until Dec. 11 for comment. If we're lucky, by Dec. 18 the cross-ownership rules will be history, at least until an anti-media consolidation activist group takes them to court yet again. If we're not, Congress will intervene--as some members have already threatened—hearings will be held on Martin's proposals, and the rules will continue to be in limbo until next year.

Scrapping the ban is especially important for Tribune Co and Sam Zell, whose buyout attempt is in danger of falling apart if the rules aren't revised this year, because Tribune Co. has cross-ownership problems in five markets including Los Angeles and Chicago, and the meter is running. In fact, Tribune will need even more help from the FCC. It has five pending waiver requests for those markets that the commission needs to grant before mid-November or the deal could unwind.

Big media foes and some members of Congress, principally Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), will try to stop Martin from proceeding, perhaps even introducing legislation. Dorgan said last week, “There is going to be a firestorm of protest, and I will be carrying the wood.” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has threatened to hold hearings.

We hope those political machinations can be thwarted. Even the court that remanded the generally deregulatory rules in 2003 said that the FCC had justified its decision to scrap the ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership. But because other rules the court was reviewing didn't pass muster, cross-ownership had been tarred with the same brush.

And that was 2003. Protesting cross-ownerships seems particularly ridiculous these days. Certainly, the wood-toting Dorgan is aware that newspaper readership and advertising are dwindling far faster today than they were even two years ago. Newspaper circulation and advertising are in freefall. Allowing TV stations and newspapers to join forces is more necessary than ever.

Indeed, many papers are now being printed in red ink. In cities nationwide, newspapers are cutting staffs, features, even whole sections. News platforms are changing far faster than politicians' rhetoric. Progressive television stations are making news-sharing arrangements with newspapers. Newspaper Websites shoot video. Television Websites write stories. Opposing cross-ownership in these times is about as relevant as, well, yesterday's newspaper.