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Surprising Backlash to FCC's Libertarian Ruling

by Sean Higgins Thursday, Jul. 24, 2003 at 9:43 PM

Activist groups and lawmakers say the libertarian instincts of the FCC's Michael Powell are out of step -- many fear that large corporations will absorb local news outlets.

House Votes To Reverse TV Cap In Stinging Rebuke Of The FCC

Sean Higgins, Investor's Business Daily, July 24, 2003

In an extraordinary rebuke of the Federal Communications Commission, the House voted 400-21 Wednesday to block a recent FCC ruling on media ownership. A similar effort is gathering momentum in the Senate. The House's actions will likely boost it.

The rollback effort has prompted a veto threat from the White House. It may turn into a real showdown, lawmakers say. "It could drop on the president's desk," said Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, who favors the rollback. Support may even be strong enough to override a veto, he says.

Backlash Was Unexpected

This situation was scarcely imaginable when the FCC voted 3-2 on June 2 to let broadcasters own enough TV stations to reach 45% of U.S. households. The old cap was 35%. Though controversial, the FCC vote had the support of the White House and key congressional leaders. The major networks all strongly support the new rule.

But a bipartisan backlash has grown in Congress. It overwhelmed the GOP leadership, which lost almost the entire caucus in the vote. The reason is that many lawmakers are personally worried about the effects of the FCC's 45% rule.

By necessity, these lawmakers are close to their local media, since it is a key means for them to talk to constituents. Many fear what may happen if a large corporation absorbs those local news outlets. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the FCC would allow "Citizen Kane to look like an underachiever," referring to the classic film about a power-hungry media mogul. Many Republicans echo that argument.

"It's just the fact that the trend toward concentration is so strong," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a moderate. Advocacy groups lobbying Congress for a rollback have pushed this angle hard. It has strong appeal to lawmakers angry over the coverage they get from chain-owned newspapers or TV stations.

"Many members of Congress have had their own bad experiences with media consolidation," said Liz Rose, spokeswoman for the Consumers Union. "This isn't just a liberal thing." Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., agrees. The former Senate majority leader said he was worried the change might let a Viacom, which owns CBS News, crowd out News Corp., which owns Fox News.

That's why conservative groups like the National Rifle Association have joined in. Their presence has helped win over Republicans. "Only of late have conservatives had a voice in the media," said Lott. The FCC's ruling could threaten that, he says.

It's a far cry from the concerns FCC Chairman Michael Powell used to justify the 45% ruling. He said lifting the cap was needed to help broadcast media compete in today's media marketplace. Diversity, he said, would not be threatened.

"We are confident in our decision," Powell said in a Wednesday statement. "It would be irresponsible to ignore the diversity of viewpoints provided by cable, satellite and the Internet." His press release cited FCC research suggesting that none of the major networks would expand too far beyond the old 35% limit.

Wednesday's vote was only the latest frustration to hit the FCC chairman, who is an appointee of President Bush and the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. The original 3-2 vote prompted a barrage of criticism. The commission's two Democratic members mounted an unprecedented public campaign against it.

Last February, Michael Powell lost a high-profile FCC vote on telecom policy when a Republican voted with the Democratic minority. Activist groups and lawmakers say Powell's libertarian instincts are out of step with the demands of the job. To them, he's too passive. "His philosophy is that of Pontius Pilate," said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center. "He just washes his hands of everything."

Others say anybody would have a hard time navigating the changing media environment. "He's in an impossible position," said one lobbyist, noting that Powell has had to deal with a number of difficult issues. Earlier this week, the FCC shot down media reports that Powell would leave in the fall. It declined to comment on Wednesday's vote.

The rollback effort still has a ways to go. The Senate must pass a similar bill and then reconcile it with the House's bill. House GOP leaders have vowed to return to the 45% limit during that process. But the pro-rollback forces have proved to be clever and persistent. They put their provision in the Commerce Department's budget, letting them bypass the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has official jurisdiction over the FCC.

That was necessary because Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., supports the 45% limit and vowed not to let the rollback pass. On Tuesday, the House defeated an amendment that would have rolled back other FCC media rules. Supporters voted to kill it, worried about galvanizing the opposition.

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