Repealing Media Ownership Regulations: It’s About Time

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed the most reasonable of actions: repealing or revising 40-year-old media ownership rules that long ago outlived any marginal usefulness they might’ve once had.

This should be a no-brainer. But, Washington being what it is, entrenched interests and politicians bent on maintaining the status quo for their own purposes have pilloried Pai for trying to do something that should’ve been done decades ago.

First, the facts. On Oct. 26, Chairman Pai released an Order on Reconsideration and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. This proceeding seeks to accomplish the following:

  • Eliminate the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule;
  • Eliminate the Radio/Television Cross-Ownership Rule; and
  • Revise the Local Television Rule to eliminate the Eight-Voices Test and to incorporate a case-by-case review provision in the Top Four Prohibition.

The proceeding would also seek to eliminate the attribution rule for television Joint Sales Agreements; retain the disclosure requirement for commercial television Shared Services Agreements; keep the Local Radio Ownership Rule; and create an incubator program to encourage new and diverse voices in the broadcast industry.

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Dan Rather Has an Idea

According to stories in the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times, newspapers of record for the nation’s elite snowboarders, Dan Rather gave a speech at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, asking that President Obama create a national commission to “save journalism.”

As one of the papers put it, without a skosh of irony, “Rather told an Aspen audience that journalism has declined to such a point that it is time for the government to intervene.”

Attributing the decline of "great American journalism" to “corporatization, politicization, and trivialization of the news,” Rather suggested that the commission “ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.”

"If we do nothing more than stand back and hope that innovation alone will solve this crisis," he said, "then our best-trained journalists will lose their jobs."

It’s not every day that one encounters such a rich vein of stuff.  Puts one in mind of the children’s illustrations that ask the question, what’s wrong with this picture?  So many upside-down daffodils and trees growing carrots.

First, you know, there’s the problem that some consider the author of this scheme himself to be a disgraced figure in the world of journalism, having lost his job at CBS for the role he played in the airing of a bogus report about President Bush.

Then there’s the (unintentionally) droll picture he conjures up of a presidential commission as a kind of jobs program for the rescue of threadbare journalists, and the linking of the employment status of some of them with the very survival of journalism itself.  

But the most grievous error — that aspect of the Jabberwocky that fairly leaps off the page — is the very suggestion that government is the solution to what ails the media today.  Make no mistake, there are governmental policies that could, and should, be changed (like, for instance, an end to the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership rules), but there is no need for a presidential commission or “media czar” for the purpose.

One would think that a former network anchorman would understand the peril inherent in any intervention by the government into the affairs of the press.  It is this, after all, that is the primary concern of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  What are the chances, for instance, that any such commission would use its mandate, and the media’s genuine agony, as cover to advance content regulations that parallel the commissioners’ political beliefs?

Speaking of his idea, Rather said that he was “throwing it out there for what it’s worth.”  Since the Aspen Institute charged $15 per ticket to this event, we know what they think it was worth, but I think admission should have been free.  It wouldn’t have improved the speech but the price would have been right.

A Disappointing Delay on Cross Ownership

Since January we’ve heard a lot of talk about changing the way the government does business.  At the FCC, however, it looks like it’s still just talk.  When it comes to the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rules, at least, the times … they definitely are NOT a-changin’.

This week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said it would put off a decision on whether to lift a stay on the FCC’s modest attempt to loosen the rules until after the Obama FCC has a chance to review the revisions.

This comes after acting FCC chairman Michael Copps announced that the Commission would no longer oppose a petition by activist groups to put the case on hold until the new FCC leadership was in place.  

Let’s add this up.  The usual suspects in the activist realm (Media Access Project, Free Press, United Church of Christ, etc.) try to stall a court action that might loosen the cross ownership rules.  They know that if they can stall until a Democratic-majority FCC is in place, the changes are as good as dead.  The acting FCC chairman, who favors that outcome, goes along with the idea.

So it’s business as usual at the FCC.  But we expected more from the federal judiciary.

The court’s decision was unfortunate.  The judges should have acted decisively and immediately to lift the stay – as a matter of principle.  The ban on cross ownership makes absolutely no sense, neither in this digital age, nor in this recession.  The ban should have been abolished in its entirety years ago.  Some relaxation now would at least be a step in the right direction.

As for the activist groups and the acting FCC leadership – shame on them.  Has nobody among them noticed that in recent months newspapers have been biting the dust at an increasing rate that is nothing short of alarming?

If these policy watchers and makers truly cared about the public interest and a diversity of media voices, as they purport to do, they would be doing everything possible to help newspapers survive.  

It’s true that the problems facing the newspaper industry go well beyond the scope of the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rules.  And it’s true that repealing the rules will not, by itself, restore the industry to robust health.

But getting rid of the rules – or even relaxing them a bit as the previous FCC chairman had proposed – might just help a little around the edges.  And if even one newspaper were able to keep publishing as a result, wouldn’t the public interest be better served?

That would be a change we could believe in.

Cross Ownership: That ’70s Show in the Senate

There they go again. No, not the FCC.  This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.  The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.

In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.

The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions.  The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”

There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way.  Could the reason be political?  Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups.  The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is.  Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil.  But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival. 

Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public.  The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.

It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity.  The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands.  It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod.