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Congress Moves to Overturn New Media Ownership Rules

It is the latest in a series of moves by members of Congress to scale back the sweeping deregulation of the media industry.

By a 40-25 bipartisan vote, the House Appropriations Committee approved a provision that would undo the FCC’s new rule that allows a single company to own more TV stations in the same market and expand its collective reach of U.S. households to 45 percent.

The provision, sponsored by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), would reinstate the previous market cap of 35 percent.

Obey described the provision, which was inserted into a bill to fund the Commerce, Justice, and State departments, as an attempt to stop major corporations from dictating what kind of news and entertainment most Americans see on TV.

“Information is to the democratic system what blood is to the human body,” Obey said in a press release.

“I think we’re in danger of shutting off the blood supply of the democracy,” he added.

Obey and several committee members complained that media corporations ignore local preferences, and instead promote sensational programs — like the Victoria Secrets lingerie program broadcast on CBS during primetime — that are unsuitable for children.

“I don’t want ownership factors to get in the way of districts like mine from being able to preserve their own cultural attitudes,” Obey said.

Advocates of the new FCC rules argued that the networks needed the deregulation in order to compete against satellite and cable broadcasters, and that the new rule would not have an impact on the quality of programming.

The Appropriations Committee, however, defeated a similar amendment to repeal another FCC rule permitting newspapers to own TV stations in the same market.

Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.), sponsor of that provision, said she wanted to check the expansion of newspapers, radio stations, and national TV networks, the Associated Press reported.

Obey said he favored her proposal, but feared that if approved, it could doom the entire bill.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators pressed ahead with their own legislative effort to derail the FCC’s new regulations.

Thirty-five senators introduced a “resolution of disapproval,” under the seldom-used Congressional Review Act of 1996, in an effort to throw out all of the FCC’s new ownership rules, which they say would consolidate too much power in too few giant corporations.

The resolution had more than the necessary 30 votes to bypass any committee debate and has already been placed on the Senate calendar to guarantee consideration by the full Senate.

“Many of us are very concerned about concentration in broadcasting and in the media and the Federal Communications Commission rule moves in exactly the wrong direction,” Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., the lead sponsor of the resolution, said at a press conference Tuesday.

“We are moving to roll back one of the most complete cave-ins to corporate interests I’ve ever seen by what is supposed to be a federal regulatory agency,” Dorgan said.

Eight other senators, including Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), co-sponsored the measure.

“I think the FCC in this case clearly made a decision that’s going to lead to more concentration, less diversity, fewer choices in the opportunity for people to view or hear or read what the news or editorial policy is,” Lott said Tuesday.

A total of 28 Democrats and seven Republicans signed the resolution, but Dorgan said he was confident he could have procured more signatures.

Although he had the necessary support to bypass the committee, Sen. Dorgan will also send the resolution for approval from the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over FCC matters.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already indicated he would approve the resolution to expedite its full consideration and vote by the Senate, Barry Piatt, communications director for Sen. Dorgan, told the Online NewsHour on Wednesday.

Piatt noted that Dorgan decided to pursue these two options — one through the Congressional Review Act, and the second through committee mark-up — to ensure the Senate would vote on the resolution before the August recess.

On June 2, the Republican-controlled FCC voted along party lines to ease ownership limits in several key rules. The new rules would lift the ban prohibiting a newspaper company from owning a TV station in the same city. Additionally, the FCC’s rules would permit broadcast companies — such as Viacom’s CBS and Disney’s ABC networks — to buy more TV stations, and thereby expand their collective reach from 35 to 45 percent of U.S. households.

Dorgan’s resolution aims to rescind the FCC’s rules, reinstating the 35 percent market cap and the ban on newspaper-television cross-ownership.

The measure would require a simple majority from the Senate to pass. If it succeeds in the Senate, the resolution would move directly onto the House for its consideration.

Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Tuesday said he already had 163 signatures supporting a resolution to roll back the relaxed media rules. Burr requires another 55 representatives to sign onto the measure in order to force a House vote.

If both chambers of Congress approve Dorgan’s resolution of disapproval, the measure would be taken up by President George W. Bush, who previously expressed strong support for FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s deregulatory agenda.

Though the FCC voted on these rules more than a month ago, the public and congressional debate appears to be just now gaining momentum.

Piatt pointed to a new study by the Pew Research Center, saying that people have become increasingly suspicious of media deregulation as they learn about the issues at stake. Piatt said Dorgan and other senators sought to bring more attention to these issues.

The Pew Research Center’s nationwide survey of 1,201 adults, conducted between June 19 and July 2, found that 50 percent of the respondents now believe that allowing companies to own multiple media outlets in the same city would have a negative impact, an increase from 34 percent in February. The Pew study attributed the higher opposition to improved “public awareness of the new media ownership rules.”

In February, 26 percent of those polled knew about the FCC review; these latest figures indicate 48 percent are now familiar with the new rules.

The study showed that currently 51 percent of the respondents still know “nothing” about the FCC overhaul, down from the 72 percent who said so in February.

The NewsHour’s Media Unit, including the Media Watch Web site, is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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