FCC: Here's Why We Denied News Corp. Waiver Challenge in '08

In the "better late than never" category, the FCC late on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend released an order denying a challenge to News Corp.'s co-ownership of WNYW-TV New York and WWOR-TV Secaucus, N.J., and the New York Post via FCC waivers and reaffirming News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch's transfer of control of Fox's TV station group to Fox Entertainment Group.

The challenge had been lodged by the United Church of Christ and Rainbow/PUSH and the decision reached on Jan. 15, 2008.

A Federal Communications Commission spokesperson was not available at press time to explain why it took 16 months to release the order.

When the order was adopted, there were still three Republicans holding the majority. That explains why the decision released Friday included two dissents by the current FCC Democratic majority. Those dissents actually dated, with a slight update, from 2006, when the FCC originally granted/renewed the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership waivers, a permanent one for WNYW and a temporary for WWOR-TV, as part of approving Murdoch's restructuring.

Because UCC and Rainbow/PUSH did not file a petition to deny those grants in 2006, the FCC concluded in the 2008 order that they lacked standing to challenge that on reconsideration and denied the petition.

That 2008 decision included a response to an earlier Free Press petition not at issue in the order exactly, but on point the 2008 FCC said. "[E]ven though the petitioners here lack standing, we think that it is appropriate as a prudential matter to consider Free Press’s objections to the 2004 Modification Request because Fox incorporated that request by reference into the transfer applications at issue here.  Our failure to do so before was an oversight arising from the informal nature of Free Press’s original objection and the fact that Free Press took no action to renew its objection when the transfer applications were filed and placed on public notice."

The commission -- with a Republican majority in 2008, not the Democrat majority of today -- was not persuaded by the Free Press argument that granting the waiver would violate the Third Circuit Court of Appeals stay of the FCC's media ownership rule changes.

It also concluded that as Murdoch was simply restructuring and not creating any new ownerhip combinations, granting the waiver would not decrease the diversity of voices, as Free Press had argued.

That waiver grant was part of Rupert Murdoch's application to transfer control of the Fox TV station group from him personally to Fox Entertainment Group. The FCC granted that application in October 2006.

As part of the order released Friday, Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein put their two dissents worth in, dissents that Adelstein pointed out were "inexplicably" not included by the (Kevin  Martin-controlled) commission in the October 2006 order.

Copps called the 2006 decision woefully deficient, saying there had been no "serious" public interest analysis of the waivers before they were renewed. He added an update for the 2008 decision, renewing his dissent and pointing out that in the interim News Corp. had bought The Wall Street Journal, operating two New York's most popular TV stations and two of its most popular newspapers.

Adelstein said the decision "slighted the needs of the American public, neglected its statutory obligation to protect the public interest, and as a result, produced a decision that falls short even of the Commission’s own standards."

Adelstein was particularly unhappy with what he saw as the lack of a "thoughtful" review of the implication on WWOR. He pointed out that then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell had promised Senator Frank Lautenburg (D-N.J.) that the commission would review that station's service to New Jersey.

"The Commission should have taken this opportunity to review WWOR-TV’s service record and encourage more locally focused news coverage," Adelstein said.

John Eggerton

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.