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Judges put FCC on hot seat

Federal judges appeared to take a dim view when a Federal Communications
Commission attorney argued that mergers need no additional public-interest
review when they comply with media-ownership limits.

Judges questioned agency lawyer Grey Pash on the point during oral arguments
in media-advocacy groups' fight to shorten News Corp.'s two-year grace period
for complying with a government order to sell either the New York Post or
one of two TV stations in the New York market. The condition was imposed as
part of FCC approval for News Corp.'s acquisition of the Chris-Craft Industries Inc. TV group.

Judge David Tatel said the FCC offered no evidence that a it had established formal policy
limits public-interest review to mere compliance with ownership limits such as
local limits on radio/TV cross-ownership. "Where do you find a policy statement
by the commission that compliance with these provisions is enough to conclude that a
license transfer is in the public interest?" he asked.

There appears to be no such policy in official FCC text aside from agency
chairman Michael Powell's personal statement concurring with the merger
approval, Judge Harry Edwards added.

The judges' comments, which may indicate nothing more than desire to play
devil's advocate in courtroom debate, nevertheless heartened Media Access
Project president Andrew Schwartzman. "There's a reasonable prospect for
reversal," he said after the hearing.

MAP and the United Church of Christ argued that the two-year grace period was
granted arbitrarily and should have been no more than the six months typically
granted for merger-divestiture orders.

News Corp. officials did not comment.