However Armey has denied he was trying to punish The Dallas Morning News parent company for its properties’ coverage of his son’s unsuccessful congressional bid.
Armey says he attempted to add a provision onto a $10.5 billion military construction appropriations bill last Friday that would have compelled the larger media companies in his Texas district to trim their holdings. He told reporters the measure stemmed from his concerns about the concentration of media ownership in his district – specifically that of the Belo Corp.
The provision would have compelled Belo to divest itself of one of its three media properties in the Dallas-Forth Worth area — The Dallas Morning News, WFAA-TV, and The Denton Record-Chronicle. Belo owns 19 television stations, four daily newspapers and several cable TV and Internet properties.
Although the bill’s language did not name Belo specifically, Armey told reporters his legislation would have affected only Belo, not media conglomerates in other cities.
“That language was designed to address this issue of mega-monopoly media only within the North Texas area,” Armey said.
Armey warned that if news organizations have no strong local competitors, they could wield inordinate influence over elections and other local issues.
“A press that is singular in any media market and not independent is harmful,” Armey told reporters Tuesday.
“Having wrestled with this problem I focused on this one option,” Armey said, referring to his decision to place the provision into the military construction appropriations bill.
Belo Corporation officials, meanwhile, accused the retiring House leader “misuse of congressional leadership powers” to retaliate against its properties’ coverage of his son Scott’s political career.
Leading up to the primary, the Morning News and the Denton Record-Chronicle published articles examining Scott Armey’s record as the former “county judge” (also called “county executive”) of Denton County, including his votes for contracts reportedly benefiting political associates. The younger Armey lost to Michael Burgess, a medical doctor, in the Republican primary for his father’s 26th congressional district seat.
Armey has lambasted the Morning News and The Denton Record for its “vicious unprofessionalism” regarding their coverage his son’s campaign, but has not specified the articles to which he objects.
The House majority leader also rejected Belo’s allegations that he was motivated by personal feelings of revenge. Armey and his spokesman, Terry Holt, maintain the congressman acted out of concern for his constituents and the dangers of media domination of one market.
“That’s Belo’s story and they’re sticking to it,” Armey said. “My only contention is that Belo should put their opinions on the opinion page and not in their news pages.”
Belo Chairman, President, and CEO Robert W. Decherd rejected Armey’s complaints that the company held a monopoly on the Dallas-Fort Worth market, describing the city as “one of the most competitive media markets in the United States.”
“Belo owns more than one asset, as do almost every one of our competitors, which in turn are owned by companies many times larger than Belo in the aggregate — Viacom, News Corp. … General Electric,” Decherd said.
Armey’s provision on the military spending bill was removed, since it would violate Senate rules against tacking on unrelated items in spending legislation, his congressional aides said.
But Armey pledged to continue to promote the provision and continue the fight against big media. He said Belo’s unbalanced coverage of his son’s political campaign illustrated the dangers of media monopolization in major markets.
“I am not done with this issue,” he said. “It is of greater urgency now because the exclusivity of their voices and the relative power of their voices is greater than it was before.” Armey, who retires from the House in January, said he had spoken to the House Commerce Committee and the Federal Communications Commission about the “grandfather” amendment that allows Belo and other media companies to own newspapers and TV stations in the same market.
The FCC is conducting a massive overhaul of its ownership regulations, with an eye towards relaxing cross-ownership restrictions.