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Media-Ownership Duel in D.C.

It was a case of economic theories at 50 paces as academics and researchers dueled over the issue of media concentration Tuesday.

The venue was a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, where committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) concluded when the smoke had cleared that the NAB would "probably prevail here again," meaning at least no major rollbacks of current deregulatory FCC policies and perhaps even more deregulation as the FCC works to recraft an FCC rule rewrite remanded to it by a Philadelphia appeals court for better justification.

Though appearing resigned to the power of broadcast lobbies, McCain vowed: "We won't give up the fight because sooner of later people are going to be disturbed by the situation."

Among those already disturbed were C. Edwin Baker, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who argued that legal restrictions on the media are "vitally important to democracy." Pointing out that the media business is a high-profit industry, Baker said the government's policy goal should be to "place ownership in the hands of people most likely to put those profits toward better journalism rather than income," which he says is generally not big media companies.

Geneva Overholser, a longtime newspaperwoman currently a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, agreed, saying that consolidation has led to budget cuts by media companies "compelled to return profits other industries can't dream of."

Echoing the diet metaphor that has been used by FCC Democratic commissioners opposed to further consolidation, Overholser talked of a media diet overfed but undernourished in journalism. There may be more outlets, she said, but that is "far different from an improved media diet." The country, she said, is "starving" for journalistic content serving the public interest. She pointed to what she suggested was the deliberate undercoverage of the media ownership debate by big media companies with a stake in the outcome.

Firing from the opposite side were independent media researcher and author Ben Compaine and Adam Thierer, Director of Telecommunications Studies, for libertarian think tank, The Cato Institute. Both argued that the rise of cable and satellite viewership (88% penetration), as well as the rise of the internet, provided plenty of alternative news and entertainment outlets.

Compain argued that even with the move toward concentration, the five big media companies now characterized as controlling the business have less share of the audience than the Big Three did in the 1980's, and that's counting their attendant cable and satellite outlets, he said.

Baker argued that Congress could help the FCC recraft its rules by 1) passing a resolution that the public interest requires the commission to prevent excessive power and to promote the maximum diversity of ownership and 2) finding that newspaper/broadcast crossownership creates unacceptable power "within local media systems," and should not be allowed except where necessary to continued economic viability.

Compain countered that the FCC has sufficient expertise and that Congress shouldn't "micromanage" the ownership issue. That comment got a rise out of McCain, who shot back that the issue was hundreds of billions of dollars worth of public spectrum and thus right up Congress's alley.

Compain said he actually agreed with McCain about getting the spectrum back after the digital transition, and may be the digital spectrum back as well--McCain has tried unsuccessfully to set a hard date for return of analog spectrum. Compaign said that with 88% of viewers getting their TV via cable and satellite, it might make more sense to guarantee carriage, take back all the spectrum and let local TV programing go direct to those alternative platforms.

Thierer also took some heat. When McCain referred to media diversity as "many puppets and one ventriloquist." Thierer responded that he did not buy into the "Neoconspiratorial puppetmaster theory" of a few people in L.A. and New york pulling all the strings.

McCain began ticking off cutbacks in network foreign bureaus, saying: "It is just a fact, and may be that is satisfactory to you. I understand CATO's libertarian views, but when the bottom line is the overriding objective, the days of Edward R. Murrow are long, long gone."

When the sparks were done flying, McCain thanked all the participants for contributing to the dialog and for answering questions, or, in Thierer's case, he said, "insults."