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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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November 14, 2007 10:55 AM

Cross ownership reaction

Posted by Ryan Blethen

Nobody is pleased with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's plan for cross ownership. No surprise that the public and consumer groups recognize the proposal as bad policy. I was somewhat surprised by the response from the media Biggies. John Sturm, President of the Newspaper Association of America, believes the proposal does not go far enough according to a quote in the Washington Post.

The fundamental issues he raises concerning the vitality of newspapers and assuring that local news remains available to the public in print and in broadcast are not confined to the top 20 markets. The radical and irreversible market changes that have occurred in every community since this rule was adopted more than 30 years ago have extinguished any basis for this across-the-board ban.

One of the strongest statements against the proposal came from Sen. Maria Cantwell, who as a member of the Commerce Committee is in a position to do something about the FCC. She said as much in a press release.

Again and again, Chairman Martin has attempted to ram through rules that will encourage media concentration despite the public's loud and clear opposition. I'm disappointed but unsurprised that after claiming the hearings were going to be a critical part of the FCC's process, and giving the public merely a week's notice on the hearing, he has released a proposal that ignores the over nine hours of testimony from Washingtonians barely 72 hours later. The chairman says he invites public comment on his proposals, so I hope that everyone will contact the FCC to let them know exactly what they think of this proposal. If Congress has to act to stop media consolidation, we will.

The two Democrats on the FCC also blasted Martin and his plan.


This is portrayed as a moderate proposal, but it is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Don't let the wool be pulled over your eyes. The proposal could repeal the ban in every market in America, not just the top twenty. Any city, no matter how small, could be subjected to newspaper broadcast ownership combinations under a very loose standard.

Under Chairman Martin's plan, all markets will be open to one company combining broadcast properties with cable, the newspaper (already a monopoly in most places), even the Internet Service Provider. His proposal could propel a frenzy of competition-stifling mergers across the land. He can try to characterize his plan as affecting only the "largest markets," but consider:

• The top 20 markets account for over 43% of U.S. households. Even on its face, this proposal directly affects over 120 million Americans.

• The Chairman then creates a loophole that Big Media will drive a truck through, permitting a newspaper-broadcast combination in any market in the country. We have seen how loosely the Commission has granted waivers in the past. If this proposal goes through, the FCC could grant cross-ownership applications in such small towns as Meridian, Mississippi and Bend, Oregon. When big conglomerates can't get their way in a general rule, they press for loopholes that swallow the rule, and they would succeed with this approach.

• The non-top four stations that major newspapers will now be competing for are precisely the stations more likely to be owned by small, independent broadcasters. If we ever got serious about women and minority ownership, these are also the stations most available to them. Chairman Martin's rule pretty much reserves these outlets for the big guys. So this proposal actually perpetuates the shamefully low levels of minority and female media ownership.

The Martin rules are clearly not ready for prime time. Under the Chairman's timetable, we count 19 working days for public comment. That is grossly insufficient. The American people should have a minimum of 90 days to comment, just as many Members of Congress have requested. More importantly, the Commission has yet to finish its Localism proceeding, teed up four years ago, or to forward comprehensive ideas to increase women and minority ownership of broadcast outlets.

There is still time to do this the right way. Congress and the thousands of American citizens we have talked to want a thoughtful and deliberate rulemaking, not an alarming rush to judgment characterized by insultingly short notices for public hearings, inadequate time for public comment, flawed studies and a tainted peer review process - all designed to make sure that the Chairman can deliver a generous gift to Big Media before the holidays. For the rest of us: a lump of coal.

We realize there is some urgency with respect to the Tribune transaction. The Chairman, however, has refused to act on Tribune's waiver requests that would permit the transaction to close. Let us be clear: it is improper to hold the Tribune hostage in order to force a vote on media ownership before the end of the year. We are prepared to vote on the Tribune waiver requests within three working days after the Chairman circulates a draft decision. There is simply no excuse for using Tribune as a human shield.

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