Senate Commerce Committee Passes Resolution to Block FCC Rule Change

The Senate Commerce Committee Thursday passed a resolution sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to invalidate the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.

“It is clear to me that the Commission rushed its process,” said Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).. “The agency rolled back its rules preventing media concentration, despite getting a cautionary light from the Congress that more public comment and more attention to localism and minority ownership was needed before barreling ahead.”

The committee also approved without debate or comment bills to free up $65 million in funding to help low-power TV stations make the transition to digital and to allow border full-power TV stations to continue in analog for five more years after the Feb. 17, 2009, transition to digital.

Dorgan told reporters he believed he had the votes necessary to pass the FCC-blocking bill in the Senate and suggested that it would pass in the House, as well. He gave no timetable for when the Senate might bring the bill up for vote.

Dorgan said the resolution will go directly from the committee to the calendar. He added that the bill would be called up for a vote after "appropriate consultation" with Senate leadership. He said he had discussions with House members, but he was concentrating on getting the bill through the Senate.

"I would expect the House and the Senate will vote to embrace the proposition that what [FCC chairman] Kevin Martin did by first of all publishing notice of a rule in The New York Times, then in about one month rushing to a vote, that this is a rule we should veto."

Asked whether he would try to attach the bill to other legislation to avoid a threatened veto, he said: "We'll see," But he added that the president has threatened to veto "most everything that goes on up here in the past six or eight months. He makes a lot of threats, but I hope he would stand on the side of the American people for a change."

Dorgan said he understood that the president was trying to support the FCC, but he added that the commission "has come out in favor of more concentration in the media," which, he said, is the wrong way to go.

Dorgan also said Martin was overly interested in the health of newspapers. "There is nothing mentioned in the FCC law about newspapers, and yet Kevin Martin's testimony and dicussions with me and others suggest that he is worried about the economic viability of newspapers," Dorgan addedd. "There is nothing in his job that says he is the newspaper referee in America, but he has apparently discovered that is an interest of his."

Commenting on the resolution of disapproval, Martin told reporters Thursday thatd he was sensitive to the input of Congress, but said he thought it was "important to update our rules to reflect a changing media marketplace, and particularly the fact that the newspaper rule had not been changed since it was put in place in 1978 and the newspaper industry was in significant financial distress. But, obviously, the commission will follow the law as it is ultimately enacted," he added.

The FCC voted Dec. 18 to lift the ban on the ownership of newspapers and TV and radio stations in the top 20 markets, subject to certain conditions, which Martin called modest reform. But Dorgan -- joined by other Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) -- said even that was too much deregulation and launched the effort to block it.

In addition to the threatened veto, the rule was taken to court by broadcasters and activists alike, so broadcasters don't look to get any regulatory certainty on the issue anytime soon.

"Our best chance to stop big media has just cleared a big hurdle," Free Press executive director Josh Silver said in response to the vote. "The Senate's defense of quality journalism, local news and diverse and independent voices couldn't happen at a more critical time."

The FCC-blocking resolution also drew praise from Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We think modest reform of ownership rules is warranted given today's marketplace reality," National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton 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.