Senators threaten to block media ownership deregulation

[Reuters]

Two U.S. senators on Wednesday threatened to introduce bipartisan legislation that would block the U.S. Federal Communication Commission from easing rules governing media ownership.

Sens. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said they were studying possible legislation that would nullify an FCC decision expected on Dec. 18.

"I think (relaxing media ownership rules) is not a good policy," Lott told reporters at a news conference. "I just don't think this is in the people's best interest."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin recently said he wants the agency to wrap up its examination of media ownership and reach a decision by Dec. 18 on whether to ease limits on how many media outlets a company may own in a single market.

Consumer groups and Democrats on the FCC have expressed reservations about easing ownership rules, fearing more consolidation in the industry would eliminate independent voices and degrade local news coverage.

Long-standing FCC rules restrict media cross-ownership and ban ownership of a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market, unless the FCC grants a waiver.

Martin has said previously he expected the cross-ownership ban to be lifted, but has declined to predict where limits would be drawn.

On Wednesday, the two senators said they were studying several ideas for derailing the FCC's expected decision in December, including a rarely used mechanism called a "resolution of disapproval," which would require passage in both the Senate and the House.

Dorgan said there was "massive support" for such a move among Democratic senators, who control the chamber. Lott was less sure about Republicans backing such an effort.

An FCC spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

If cross-ownership limits were eased or lifted, it could help some investors such as real estate tycoon Sam Zell, who is leading a proposed leveraged buy-out of media group Tribune Co. Zell wants the FCC to reaffirm waivers that allow Tribune to cross-own daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in some markets.

A federal appeals court halted a 2003 FCC plan to relax media ownership rules when it ruled that the agency failed to adequately justify the new rules. Since then, the FCC has held public meetings in a half-dozen cities to gather feedback about media ownership.

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