FCC May Vote to Loosen Media Ownership Rules

The Federal Communications Commission is set to take a controversial vote. The five commissioners will tackle whether a single media company can own a TV or radio station and a newspaper in the same market. The proposal has drawn stinging criticism from Congress and the public.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The Federal Communications Commission is set to take a very controversial vote today. The five commissioners will tackle the issue of whether a single media company can own both a TV or radio station and a newspaper in the same market. While it may not sound like a big deal, the proposal has drawn stinging criticism from Congress and the general public.

Joining us now to explain it is NPR's Neda Ulaby.

Welcome, Neda.

NEDA ULABY: Hi, John.

YDSTIE: The issue of what's called cross-ownership is just one of the - a number of interesting items on the FCC's agenda at its public meeting today. Yet it's drawn most of the attention so far. Why?

ULABY: It's mostly because cross-ownership is a very polite way to say consolidation. And that is a fighting word to groups ranging from Code Pink to the National Rifle Association. Nobody likes consolidation because it reminds them, for example, of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, when a few major media companies like Viacom and Clear Channel suddenly had permission to buy up hundreds and hundreds of stations with a result that nobody is particularly happy with commercial radio right now.

And when it comes to local news, Martin - Chairman Martin of FCC believes that combining the news-gathering potential of a TV station and a newspaper newsroom can only help both organs at a moment when both have to compete with the dreaded Internet.

YDSTIE: But what does the Federal Communications Commission have to do with newspapers? Doesn't it just regulate TV, radio, telecom, the airwaves, that sort of thing?

ULABY: You know, that's what I thought too. And that's what Democrats and Republicans thought, and an issue that they raised at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week. Here is outgoing Republican Senator Trent Lott.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): I don't get why Republicans would be crying alligator tears over newspapers having problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. LOTT: What? What are you doing? You know, look, they're losing readership because times have changed. It's technology. It's also because they give so much garbage, people get tried of, you know, putting up with it. In my area, we buy them to wrap our mullet with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: I have to say that Lott was actually one of the more supportive voices at that hearing and...

YDSTIE: My goodness.

ULABY: ...as you heard, he was pretty snarky.

YDSTIE: Now, it sounds like this vote isn't popular with anyone except maybe Chairman Martin.

ULABY: And maybe newspaper owners, a few big media owners, but even they say that it doesn't go far enough. The senators were saying that Martin should be dealing with more pressing issues. One, for example, would that all of our televisions are going to start receiving their signals in a completely different way as of next year. That's the transition to digital television. And they also say that the FCC should be engaging more urgently with the root problems of why they are so few women in minority media owners. And that's an issue that some of the senators linked directly to media consolidation.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Senators Obama and Kerry are trying to delay today's FCC vote. Why is Chairman Martin rushing in the face of what seems to be such broad-based criticism?

ULABY: It's one of the great mysteries of Washington, D.C. right now. Chairman Martin really seems to think that he's taking a principled stand right now. He seems to think that Congress has mandated the FCC to make such changes. The critics say that Martin is not paying enough attention and is in fact taking the FCC down a path where attention is not being seriously paid to studies that contradict a pro-cross-ownership position.

YDSTIE: NPR's Neda Ulaby. Thanks very much.

ULABY: Thank you, John.

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