Senate comittee votes to block FCC ownership decision

by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

The Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday unanimously passed a bill to block a Federal Communications Commission vote Dec. 18 on loosening its ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.

It now goes before the full Senate. An aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the bill has plenty of support on both side of the aisle but didn't know when it might be scheduled for a floor vote.

The bill, proposed by Dorgan and others, would prevent the FCC from voting specifically on the cross-ownership item by requiring the commission, generally, to publish any proposed rule changes in the Federal Register 90 days prior to a vote, giving the public 60 days to comment and another 30 days for reply comments.

Dorgan wants the FCC to slow down on its media-ownership review -- he is opposed to further consolidation -- and sees the bill's unanimous vote as a warning to do just that, with a "fair process" and plenty of chance for the public to be heard.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin wants to vote on the proposal by Dec. 18 and essentially close the media-ownership inquiry with that one item -- a compromise from the series of deregulatory moves, including lifting the ban entirely, that the FCC had previously proposed.

Hill Democrats and commission Democrats said the FCC should get more comments on that new proposal, as well as complete separate inquiries into diversity and localism, before wrapping up its rule review.

But just putting off the Dec. 18 vote would not be enough. Martin would have to complete a separate localism hearing and open one on diversity, which would push the ownership-rule review deep into 2008 at least.

During brief discussion of the bill, Dorgan referred to a document from the chief counsel of the FCC "dug out with a FOIA request" by a group in Georgetown. "This document is an attempt to share some thoughts and ideas I have about how the FCC can approach relaxing newspaper braodcast crossownership," he said. "In this section I will discuss some studies that might provide valuable input to support relaxation." Dorgan said that the document showed that "they started the whole thing by saying 'all right, we're going to try to figure out how we can do this rather than trying to figure out 'is this a good thing to do' "

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has pointed out that the federal court that remanded the rules back to the FCC said the FCC had made a case for the ban no longer being necessary, but needed better justification for what to do next..

Dorgan complained about a vote being rushed through in December, but Martin has pointed out the FCC held numerous public hearings across the country on the issue. "But there was no rule out there for people to comment on at that point," said Dorgan, and "only in November was there a rule put out." Dorgan said the rush to a December vote "makes no sense at all."

The FCC last week granted Tribune temporary waivers of its newspaper-broadcast cross-ownerships with an eye toward that Dec. 18 vote, when most of those cross-ownerships would then be allowable. But it also tied the waivers to any court action by Tribune, so that if the Martin proposal doesn't get a December vote, it would not jeopardize the sale of the company to Sam Zell and Tribune employees.

The bill was co-sponsored by, among others, presidential hopefuls Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), as well as former hopeful Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). It also had Republican support from soon-to-be-ex Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott and Washington state’s Sen. Olympia Snowe.

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