The sneaky handling of rules that will dilute media diversity

by ,

Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, Sat, Dec. 13, 2003

Over the summer, Senate and House members plunked down on the couch with the American public and took a look at the Federal Communications Commission's plan for more mega-media mergers.

Before long, they were all tossing nachos at the television screen - giving the plan the equivalent of a zero Nielsen rating.

Public opinion ran against the idea. Both the Senate and House voted to oppose the FCC's loosening of media ownership rules. So the show was canceled, right?

Uh-uh. President Bush likes the FCC program so much he's convinced some congressional leaders to snatch the remote control. He is trying to push through, in a House-Senate conference committee bill, something the two chambers rejected in separate legislation.

Bush and his tools on the Hill aren't compromising much as they muscle in new rules on how big a viewing audience broadcasters will be able to grab.

If the Senate joins the House in passing the joint bill, the rules on media ownership will be relaxed far too much. Large media companies could grow bigger and even more dominant, as they are permitted to buy stations that reach nearly 40 percent of TV viewers.

That's only a slight retreat from the rejected FCC plan to let broadcasters lock up a 45 percent audience share.
Another misguided measure the FCC enacted - but delayed while a federal court in Philadelphia reviews it - would relax the good-sense ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets in one metro area.

All told, the changes would upend a quarter century of media limits that worked: They preserved at least some degree of local control and diversity by preventing any company from dominating the airwaves or controlling TV, radio and newspapers in a region.

The media changes are bad policy being pushed through via backdoor means. The FCC proposal has been dropped into an omnibus must-pass appropriations bill needed to operate the federal government. Sliding controversial proposals into unrelated, essential legislation is not a new tactic. But this time, the maneuver ignores votes already taken on Capitol Hill.

That's more than hardball politics. On media ownership, Bush and congressional leaders playing along with him have tuned out the public interest.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey