The Senate Commerce Committee easily cleared legislation today that would block a controversial FCC decision in December to relax the nation’s media ownership limits, sending a stern rebuke to agency Chairman Kevin Martin, the main proponent of the rule change. The measure, along with a bill sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would delay the looming transition to digital television signals by five years along the U.S.-Mexican border, were approved by voice vote. The “resolution of disapproval” from Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is backed by 25 senators from both parties, including Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. Dorgan claimed the FCC got it wrong. “There has been galloping concentration,” he said, noting that today’s development paves the way for a floor vote. Other co-sponsors include Senate Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and Senate Commerce ranking member Ted Stevens. The one-paragraph joint resolution faces an uphill battle because it would require passage by both chambers and President Bush’s signature to take effect — a tall order since the Bush administration has endorsed the FCC’s changes.
Martin has argued that permitting newspapers and TV or radio stations to consolidate in the nation’s top 20 markets is necessary to help struggling newspapers stay afloat in an environment where news is freely available on the Internet. “There is nothing mentioned in the FCC law about newspapers,” Dorgan countered, adding, “There is nothing in [Kevin Martin’s] job saying he is the newspaper referee in America.” Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said his group supports the changes adopted by the commission. “We think modest reforms are needed to reflect today’s marketplace,” he said.
Dorgan took a swipe at media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s proposed purchase of Tribune Co.’s Newsday in the New York market, saying, “It’s another example of concentration that I think is unhealthy.” The Wall Street Journal, recently purchased by News Corp. Chairman and CEO Murdoch, reported a tentative deal Tuesday. News Corp. would need FCC permission to add Newsday because it already has received waivers to own the New York Post and two TV stations in the New York area. The Journal apparently won’t factor into local ownership limits affecting News Corp. since it is viewed as a national paper.
The Hutchison bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would permit full-power television broadcasters within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border to continue to operate in analog for five years beyond the Feb. 17 transition of stations to digital signals. The measure is designed to give residents along the border, many of whom are low-income, bilingual and viewers of analog stations from Mexico, more time to make the switchover. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., has introduced a companion bill in the House. The NAB has not taken a position on the DTV bills.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.