12.20.2007

Media Consolidation: The Bad Referees at the FCC

by Rick Rockwell

Have you seen the commercial that features a football referee admitting he made a bad call, but he’ll make it up by penalizing the team that benefited later to even it all out? Well, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin must have seen too much of that commercial.

Subliminally or otherwise, Martin has become the bad referee.

In a sort of late December surprise, the FCC voted on Tuesday to lift rules that will allow newspaper and television cross ownership in the top 20 markets in the U.S. As this column has noted before, this is a thinly disguised gift to the Tribune Company which is seeking a new owner, but will have to divest various media properties, which had been exempted from the current rules that do not allow cross-ownership. All of the Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted for the rule change, which amounts to a multi-billion dollar gift to the staunchly conservative Tribune Company.

But to make it up later in the same meeting, Martin voted with the Democratic commissioners to re-impose ownership caps on cable television, a move clearly aimed at stopping the further expansion of Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable firm which has spread across the U.S. like a hungry colony of germs in flu season. (Considering Comcast’s poor consumer track record, that is not an over-the-top comparison. See more on the company's consumer scorecard in: "That's Comcastic: Internet Disconnection.")

But these decisions are somewhat typical of Martin’s FCC which is becoming increasingly irrelevant (as Republicans would like it to be) in policing the changing media environment. The courts will likely get involved almost immediately with the cable rules, because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the old cable ownership caps back in 2001. Both the courts and Congress will likely step in to stop the FCC’s move to grant more media consolidation in the top cities of the U.S. by allowing more newspaper and television cross-ownership.

U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Barack Obama (D-IL) both reacted quickly and promised that the Senate would move to stop the FCC’s cross-ownership rules. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-SD) led the charge the last time the FCC messed with consolidation rules and he was one of the first to warn the FCC this fall not to pass the rules or face Congressional action. Obama should be commended for taking note of this marginally-covered issue while he’s busy campaigning for president. He and his staff know that this involves billions of dollars in media investment and will likely make it more difficult for a diversity of views and minority voices to be heard on the airwaves. Consumer groups are also already organizing to lobby against the new rules. (Groups such as Free Press have collected more than 35,000 signatures in a day in an online petition asking Congress to strike down the new FCC rules.)

As for Chairman Martin, it seems others are already blowing the whistle on this bad referee.

Sometimes, it is good to know that all parts of the democracy haven’t stopped functioning: there’s still something akin to video booth review for bad regulations.

(The photo shows four of the FCC's commissioners at a field hearing in Keller, TX in 2006. Pictured l-r: Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate; Commissioner Michael Copps; Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein; and Chair Kevin Martin. The photo is from the FCC and is in the public domain.)












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