The FCC, Corporate Media & The Tribune Company

by Rick Rockwell

The FCC is up to its old tricks.

Members of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee took the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to task last week because the commission again tried to slip a favor to corporate media. The FCC wants to loosen caps on how many stations nationwide a media company can own. The commission also wants to allow cross-media ownership. Usually, the owners of newspapers are prevented from also owning broadcast stations in the same cities. Yes, some cross-ownership does exist, because some owners have waivers from the FCC. They obtained those waivers because the ownership structures were in place before the laws about ownership limits were written.

Some may be asking, in this modern communications world, why have restrictions at all?

Well, the idea to limit ownership was put into the law to encourage local ownership of broadcast properties. The idea was that would encourage local and regional coverage of news and public affairs. Likewise, the measure was put in place as a check on further consolidation of the media. Of course, the quaint concepts of localism and ownership limits existed before the corporate assault unleashed by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That act gave the FCC the power to re-establish these limits as necessary to improve communication.

Let’s be clear, there’s a reason the FCC is back trying to change ownership laws. The last time the FCC tried this, the federal courts threw out their plan in 2003, and later Congress reached a compromise that allowed both FOX and CBS to keep local stations that were beyond the old ownership restrictions. Behind this new initiative is an attempt by the FCC to boost the sale of the Tribune Company (which owns The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, among other properties) to Sam Zell for about $8.2 billion. The problem with the sale is that Tribune owns 23 TV stations and some of those stations are in cities where Tribune also has other media properties. Although Tribune has a waiver for that type of cross-ownership now, once the sale goes through, Zell will have to start selling off media properties in some of the biggest cities in the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Hartford, Connecticut.

Another reason the FCC wants to be so generous is that Tribune is a company with a long conservative history. The chair of the FCC is Kevin Martin, a Republican appointee, who knows how the Tribune has supported Republican causes for generations. Don’t let folks mislead you about the true nature of media ownership in America: the media are conservative and part of big business, like the Tribune Company. Those who would have you believe the media are leftist and liberal leave out information about these sweetheart deals that the media companies and their lobbyists cook up.

What seems like an unlikely coalition of Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Trent Lott (R-MS) told the FCC to go back to the drawing board. Dorgan and Minority Whip Lott are fierce defenders of the current standards because they represent states with small markets where already too much media consolidation has taken place: so much that local news is sometimes ignored. And when politicians are ignored in their states, there’s going to be hell to pay.

So, Corporate Media and the FCC lose this round. But stay tuned: this battle is not over, not until that Tribune sale is done.

(The photo of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin at a hearing in Keller, Texas in 2006 is from the FCC; the photo is in the public domain.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

A little historical perspective for those who don't know about the Tribune Co.'s delightful past. Col. Robert McCormick, who ran the Tribune as his personal toy until he died in 1955, hated FDR and the New Deal so much that the Trib broke military security during World War II to report not just that the U.S. won the Battle of Midway, but did it by breaking the Japanese naval code. This was, next to the Manhattan Project, probably the most closely-guarded secret of the war. It was McCormick's personal jab at Roosevelt.

Rick Rockwell said...


Thanks for the postscript...spoken like a former Tribune employee who knows his history.

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