Senate Votes to Block FCC's Cross-Ownership Rule Change

The Senate Thursday night voted, without debate, to invalidate the Federal Communications Commission's Dec. 18 decision to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has been pushing hard for the resolution of disapproval, which passed the Senate Commerce Committee last month. He argued that media consolidation has already led to a lack of localism and diveristy, so any more loosening of rules is uncalled for.

The measure passed on a voice vote, with Dorgan saying the vote sent the 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.

Adding his vote of approval was FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who has been critical of the process that resulted in the FCC decision. "The Senate spoke for a huge majority of Americans tonight by voting to overturn the flawed FCC decision gutting our long-standing ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership," he said. "With courageous leaders like Sen. Byron Dorgan, the Senate has struck a blow for localism and diversity in a media environment crying out for more of both."

Dorgan got a similar resolution passed in 2003 -- the last time the FCC tried to revise its media-ownership rules -- but that effort got stuck in the House and was ultimately mooted when a federal court remanded the rules back to the FCC for changes or better justification.

The Dec. 18 vote, which FCC chairman Kevin Martin called a modest change, was part of the FCC's attempt to wrap up that review, though the rule has also been taken to court by anti-consolidation activists as too much deregulation and broadcasters as not enough.

Martin told reporters recently that he was sensitive to the input of Congress on the issue, but 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 co-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.

Among the co-sponsors of the resolution are senators and presidentiali candidates Clinton and Obama. After the subcmmittee passed the bill, Obama e-mailed a response to B&C: “We must ensure that we have an open media market that represents diverse voices throughout the country," Obama said. "The rules promoting the public interest and diversity in media ownership are too important for the FCC to accept an agenda supported by the Washington special interests I have fought against for more than one year.”

The resolution now must be voted on by the House. The Bush administration reiterated Thursday that it supported the FCC's move, opposed the resolution, and would likely veto it.

Late Thursday, it had been looking like bills and debate on other matters would push the media-ownership debate into Friday or Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stepped in to clear the way for the resolution's passage Thursday night.

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.