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House Considers Changes to Media-Ownership Rules

December 5, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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The House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee heard testimony on Wednesday from top FCC officials on whether media companies should be permitted to own both a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. The NewsHour reports on the proposed rule changes and congressional reaction to the measure.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Congress considers the so-called cross-ownership debate. Kwame Holman has our Media Unit report.

REP. JOE BARTON (R), Texas: Some of us do support the relaxation of the cross-ownership rules, so you have a few friends on that issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin set off a media industry firestorm several weeks ago when he proposed ending the longstanding ban on one company owning both a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. So when he and the four other FCC commissioners came before a House commerce panel today to discuss the plan, everyone expected a heated debate.

REP. JOHN DINGELL (D), Michigan: The FCC appears to be broken.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Martin, a nominee of President Bush, was first called to task for how he arrived at his plan to allow newspaper companies to purchase TV stations in the 20 largest media markets. Michigan’s John Dingell is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: In recent months, we’ve heard about many FCC agenda meetings postponed all day, while closed negotiations on important public matters were conducted. We have witnessed too much sniping amongst the commissioners, and we’ve heard too many tales of short-circuited decision-making processes.

KWAME HOLMAN: In a letter Monday, Dingell called on Chairman Martin to publish proposed rules in advance of meetings, allow more public review time, and give commissioners relevant information on proposed rules. Applied retroactively, that would block a scheduled December 18th vote on Martin’s proposed loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.┬á Martin defended that plan.

KEVIN MARTIN, Chairman, FCC: This relatively minor loosening of the ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership in markets where there are many voices and sufficient competition would help strike a balance between ensuring the quality of local newsgathering while guarding against too much concentration.  I believe the revised rule would balance the need to support the availability and sustainability of local news, while not significantly increasing local concentration or harming diversity.

Concern over consolidation

KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a former Democratic congressional staffer, said reaction to Martin's plan reflected deep public concern about too much media ownership concentration in too few hands.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN, Commissioner, FCC: Americans from all walks of life, from all political perspectives, from the right to the left and virtually everyone in between, don't want a handful of companies dominating their main sources of news and information. It goes against the spirit of America for that kind of concentration of power in the media to occur.  We're on a dangerous course that could damage the diversity of voices that is so critical to the future of our democracy and to an informed citizenry.

KWAME HOLMAN: House members aren't alone in expressing concern about Chairman Martin's plan to lift the media ownership ban. Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to block the plan for at least six months while a study is done on the impact of a company owning more than one broadcast station in a city where it also owns a newspaper.  There was worry the plan could exacerbate a recent dramatic decline in minority ownership of commercial TV stations. E. Faye Williams of the National Congress of Black Women testified at the House hearing.

E. FAYE WILLIAMS, Chair, National Congress of Black Women: The minority-owned media company has become an endangered species, Mr. Chairman. Despite making up 34 percent of the U.S. population, race and ethnic minorities own only 7.7 percent of radio stations and just over 3 percent -- that's 3 percent -- of television stations.  Under Chairman Martin, the situation has worsened. I think the term "media sharecropping" has been used. And as a sharecropper's daughter, we definitely don't want to go back there, Mr. Chairman.

KWAME HOLMAN: FCC Chairman Martin acknowledged there are hurdles for small and minority businesses seeking to buy media outlets.

KEVIN MARTIN: The single biggest obstacle is the fact that the vast majority of licenses have been issued already and that access to capital to buy some of those licenses on the market.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last week, the FCC was criticized for deciding to allow the Tribune Company to continue operating both newspapers and TV stations in five cities. The FCC chairman's latest media ownership plan will get further review by Congress before it recesses later this month.