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Senate Rebuff On Ownership Rules

As promised, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has succeeded once again in getting the Senate to vote to block a slightly more lenient FCC media ownership rule change. But also as promised, the Bush administration reiterated its plans to veto it if it passes in the House as well.

Dorgan's bill would keep intact an old rule that blocks newspaper-broadcast cross-ownerships in the same market. Late last year, the FCC loosened the rule to allow cross-ownership in the nation's top 20 markets.

On May 15, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to schedule the vote, and brought the resolution to the floor. The measure passed without debate on a voice vote and now heads to the House.

The unusual legislative move essentially invalidates a rulemaking by a regulatory agency. Dorgan succeeded in 2003 in getting Senate passage of a similar resolution blocking a more deregulatory FCC rule change, but it was bottled up in the Republican-controlled House and eventually became a moot issue when the a Federal court remanded the rules.

This time around, however, Dorgan has had to stand in line to take his shot at the rule change. Both broadcasters and anti-consolidation activists have taken the FCC to court over the Dec. 18 decision, for different reasons. Broadcasters had hoped the FCC would have loosened a wider array of ownership rules. Big-media foes saw the cross-ownership change as another way large media corporations could grab more turf.

Those challenges have been consolidated in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is famous for taking its time in deciding what to do, according to veteran court-watchers. It can hear the case itself, or could turn it over to the Third Circuit, which remanded the 2003 rules and has asserted jurisdiction.

Sen. Dorgan has been pushing hard for the latest resolution of disapproval. He argues, as do co-sponsors including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, that media consolidation has already led to a lack of localism and diversity, so any more loosening of rules is uncalled for.

That the measure passed on a voice vote was proof for Dorgan that it was a signal to the FCC to "get things right." He decried what he said were three of the five FCC Commissioners becoming cheerleaders for more consolidation.

Also standing up for the resolution was Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who said the rule had been rushed through despite dissenting views. While there was virtually no discussion of the bill before passage, she took some time afterward to talk about the history of the FCC's media ownership rule review, which she said was not sufficiently vetted by the public.

A couple of senators said they wanted to be on record in opposition, but none stood to defend the FCC.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told reporters recently that he was sensitive to the input of Congress on the issue, 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."

The resolution now must be voted on by the House. The Bush administration said last week that it supported the FCC's move, arguing that it "modestly and judiciously modernizes decades-old media-ownership regulations," and signaling the President would veto Dorgan's bill.

Bottom line: The regulatory certainty broadcasters have been seeking since 2003 remains elusive.