An overdue government review of media ownership regulations has put the Federal Communications Commission in an awkward spot with its media-reform efforts because it is being forced to wait on the outcome of an ongoing legal battle, according to several FCC commissioners.
Every four years the FCC reviews regulations that restrict who can own broadcast media outlets. The agency jump-started the 2010 process in late 2009, but media-reform activists and broadcasters are still waiting. Even though procedural delays are largely beyond the FCC’s control, the drawn-out court fight has still not resolved the rules adopted after the last review in 2006.
The delayed review has elicited criticism from both sides of the media-ownership issue. By diving into the lengthy process, the FCC missed a window of opportunity to try to fix the rules before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit got involved, Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said.
“As far back as 2009 I was sounding the warning that we needed to be expeditious in addressing these rules,” he told National Journal. Although the FCC does not have to wait on a court ruling, McDowell said it would be “awkward” for the agency to move ahead without it.
“Now the commission has put itself in the position of waiting for the 3rd Circuit to rule,” he said. “There is certainly the potential for this regulation and litigation cycle to continue for years.”
Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said that the 2010 review was originally expected to be finished last year, but some research was “tardily commissioned” by the agency.
“I think it’s regrettable,” he told NJ in an interview at the National Conference for Media Reform. “I think we ought to be able to be prompt once every four years. Every day that that’s delayed means a day longer until we get to media reform that really includes the substantial rules.”
When the process was launched in November 2009, Copps called for the review to be an “urgent priority.”
An FCC official defended the process, saying that many of the delays were beyond the agency’s control and shifting some blame to previous FCC chairmen, including Copps, who was acting chairman for about six months in 2009. The official told NJ that the agency was waiting for congressional funding to conduct needed studies and that the money was not available before Julius Genachowski became chairman. Those studies include the effects of controversial regulations that restrict companies from owning TV stations and newspapers in the same market.
Awkward was exactly how Corie Wright, policy counsel for the media-reform group Free Press, described the situation as well.
In February, she and other attorneys from advocacy groups and broadcasters argued in court over the rules that the FCC enacted after the 2006 review. Wright said a decision by the court is expected sometime this summer.
“This can certainly have an impact on the current FCC proceeding,” she said. “I suspect the FCC won’t issue new rules until the court issues its opinion.”
Andrew Schwartzman, senior vice president of the public-interest law firm Media Access Project, called the review “hopelessly behind schedule” and agreed that it is “extremely unlikely” that the FCC would act on any recommendations before a decision by the court
Advocates for media reform criticize the last set of rules as too loose and not backed up by sufficient justification. Broadcasters, on the other hand, say the regulations aren’t loose enough and have asked the court to throw them out entirely.
Many media-ownership rules are outdated and unnecessary, said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters.
“There has been a seismic change in the media landscape since 1960s,” he said. “We think there should be some modest reform of these rules because they don’t reflect the marketplace.”
Although they may be united in decrying the cumbersome review process, McDowell and Copps remain divided over the role that the FCC should play in regulating media companies.
“Burdensome rules that have remained essentially intact for more than a decade should not be allowed to continue impeding, or potentially impeding, the ability of broadcasters and newspapers to survive and thrive in the digital era,” McDowell said when the FCC officially approved its notice of inquiry.
Copps, however, argues that if the Internet and other new technologies face consolidation in the same way that traditional media outlets have, it would be a “real tragedy.” He said he fears the “cable-ization” of the Internet, with mega corporations gathering larger and larger shares of the market. “That would be a mistake of historic proportions,” Copps said.
This article appears in the April 27, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.