STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Americans tracking political news like that can find reports about it on the Web or in wireless Internet at some cafe or on cell phones, which raises the question of how much it really matters if one company dominates your city's traditional media - owning a newspaper and TV station in the same city, say.
Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission tried to change the limits on how many broadcast and print outlets a company can own in the same market. But a federal court sent those revisions back to the commission for further study. And the FCC holds a hearing on media ownership tonight in Tampa, Florida.
From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: The FCC only held one official public hearing in 2003 before voting to change the broadcast ownership rules. This time around, it's holding six. Bishop Benjamin Peterson of the Greater Bible Way Temple in Philadelphia testified at a February hearing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Bishop BENJAMIN PETERSON (Senior Pastor, Greater Bible Way Temple): I am concerned that greater media consolidation will silence voices that must be heard and will contribute to greater isolation of the poor and disfranchised.
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ROSE: The FCC is again considering whether to relax the current rules that limit the number of TV and radio stations a company can own in one market and prevent a single company from owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same town. FCC chairman Kevin Martin and the other four commissioners sat through six hours of testimony at Harrisburg.
Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): I think it's always important to try and make sure that you're working in a manner that gives everyone an opportunity to have input, and so that we've got to have more hearings throughout the country. And actually one of the most important things is to try to work as much as possible to have a collaborative process among all the different commissioners.
ROSE: Martin seems to be avoiding the approach that got his predecessors in trouble. Former chairman Michael Powell was criticized for not seeking public input before the divided FCC voted on sweeping rule changes. Congress blocked some of those rules from taking effect, and a federal appeals court threw the rest back to the FCC, saying the commission had failed to justify the changes.
While broadcasters lobbied intensely for the FCC to relax the ownership caps four years ago, they may not be pushing so hard this year. Rebecca Arbogast is a former FCC lawyer and a communications analyst at the firm Stifel Nicolaus.
Ms. REBECCA ARBOGAST (Communications Analyst, Stifel Nicolaus): Right now, a lot of that plans that some of the companies had had for merging, those plans have come and gone. There is more focus on the Internet.
ROSE: Still, some broadcasters showed up at the hearing in February to make the case for lifting the ownership caps. Paul Quinn is the general manager of WGAL in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He says broadcasters need further consolidation to stay profitable at a time when audiences have more options.
Mr. PAUL QUINN (General Manager, WGAL): There was no YouTube in 2003. We got cell phones now that can actually - you can watch our streaming weather. It's a different world, even from 2003. And that's our argument, is the rules and the FCC are going to have to stay on top of the evolution of technology.
ROSE: That argument doesn't convince everyone. Pete Tridish is technical director of the Prometheus Radio Project - the Philadelphia non-profit that successfully sued the FCC in 2003 to block the last round of changes. Tridish says most Americans are still getting their news from old media and the current ownership caps are still necessary to promote competition and diversity of opinion.
Mr. PETE TRIDISH (Technical Director, Prometheus Radio Project): What the Internet's good at is - it's good at sort of people-to-people contact. It's not really good for hard news, investigative journalism and the sorts of things that we rely on the newspapers and the TV stations to give.
ROSE: There are signs the FCC may opt for limited deregulation. After the hearing in Harrisburg, chairman Kevin Martin noted that the federal court didn't reject all of the commission's conclusions, only its methodology.
In fact, the court agreed with one change that would allow newspapers to buy broadcast outlets in the same city. Still, Martin insists the FCC has yet to decide if it will try to lift the ownership caps again.
Mr. MARTIN: I don't view this as building a case, because that would imply that we've already figured out what the outcome should be. I think the whole point of this is to help us try to determine what should be - are appropriate rules, and to do that we got to make sure we have an open process.
ROSE: That process continues tonight in Tampa, Florida. Martin says he wants to hold two more hearings on the broadcast ownership rules this year, but he doesn't know when the commission will issue its ruling.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.