The U.S. Senate passed a bill May 15, 2008 that would overturn rules adopted in December 2007 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to loosen media cross-ownership restrictions.
The rule the bill disapproved, FCC 07-216, made it easier for a single company to own both a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in large cities. According to the FCC, the rule would have “the primary effect of presuming that certain limited combinations of newspaper and broadcast facilities in the largest markets are in the public interest.” (See “FCC Changes Cross-Ownership Rules amid Intense Criticism” in the Winter 2008 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
The bill, S. J. Res. 28, was initially introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and had 27 co-sponsors. It passed on a voice vote, and no voting records were kept.
Dorgan said the December 2007 FCC action opened a “gaping loophole for more mergers of newspapers and television stations across the country,” according to a May 16 Associated Press (AP) story.
The bill will require the approval of both houses of Congress and President Bush in order to nullify the FCC’s new rules. Under the congressional disapproval procedures delineated in 5 U.S.C. section 802, Congress has the authority to overturn agency rules within 60 session days of receipt of a report from the agency to both houses of Congress containing the rule and a general statement regarding its content or publication of the rule in the Federal Register. The new cross-ownership rules were published in the Federal Register on February 21, according to a March 5 Broadcasting & Cable story.
The House version of the bill, H. J. Res. 79, last saw activity when it was referred to the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on March 13. The House resolution is sponsored by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and has 31 co-sponsors.
If the measure were to pass the House, the Bush administration has indicated that a veto is likely, according to a May 19 story in U.S. News and World Report. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said he was “disappointed with the Senate’s action,” and would recommend that the president veto the bill, according to a May 16 AP story. “The FCC’s approach modernizes a 30-year-old rule in a way that improves the financial viability of the newspaper industry, which faces an increasingly competitive media market,” Gutierrez said.
Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) gave his reasoning for opposing the FCC’s new measure in the same AP story.
“In recent years, we have seen an increase in coarse and violent programming, coupled with a decrease in local news and hard-hitting journalism,” Inouye said. “To say these trends are not in the best interest of the American people, and especially our youngest citizens, is clearly an understatement.”
Advocacy groups say they fear the cross-ownership loosening will spread beyond the top 20 markets and that companies such as Tribune, Media General, and Gannett will buy competitors in smaller cities, according to a story published May 16 in The Seattle Times. The groups said they fear this would leave too much control over local news and information in the hands of too few owners.
“The consolidation of TV, radio and newspaper ownership that has occurred already limits the scope of the marketplace of ideas and hinders vigorous public debate, thereby posing a great threat to the First Amendment rights of all Americans,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, in an April 28 story in Television Week.
On October 23, 2008, the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law will present a special Fall Forum addressing media cross-ownership. For more information on the event, see “Silha Fall Forum will Address FCC Cross-Ownership Rules” on page 35 of this issue of the Silha Bulletin.
– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant