Media review plan called half-baked

Jan 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The George W. Bush administration tried to overhaul the government’s policy on reviewing media mergers and other deals without collecting data on whether the changes were needed.
That’s the conclusion of Senate staffers who met last week with Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department staffers to explore why the administration sought the changes.
“DOJ staff admitted that they had not consulted with consumer groups in any way before formulating their proposal,” said Andy Davis, spokesman for Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who sent staffers to the meeting. “Additionally, they had no statistical data to demonstrate each agency’s expertise. Instead, they relied solely on anecdotal evidence.”
The agencies surprised Congress two weeks ago with plans to strip the FTC of its authority to scrutinize media deals and change other longstanding policies. Justice, which already has some responsibility for media deals, would have become the only government agency examining television industry combinations.
The White House backed off when Sen. Hollings, who heads a panel that has FTC oversight and another that funds Justice, raised concerns. But the administration could still resurrect the plan. At the meeting, Sen. Hollings’ staffers conveyed strong objections to the proposal and the fact that it was crafted without congressional knowledge.
The senator wants the FTC, a bipartisan agency with expertise on media-related matters, to retain its authority.
Two watchdog groups -Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America-urged the senator in a Jan. 22 letter to hold hard to his position. “We have deep concerns about the ability and willingness of the Department of Justice to vigorously administer the antitrust laws,” they wrote. “The DOJ has shown more susceptibility to the influence of whatever administration is currently in power.”
Action also heated up on other fronts last week as lawmakers returned to Washington for the second session of the 107th Congress:
* Campaign finance reform: Now that supporters have enough signatures to force action on the issue, the House will vote in one or two months on election reform. Three bills are in play, and one-Shays-Meehan-reduces the lowest unit rates that politicians pay for TV time. Some Republicans, including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., have vowed to kill such language. The Senate has passed a campaign finance bill that includes the TV-related provisions.
* Broadband: The White House is working with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department, and other agencies to craft a new comprehensive policy to spur the deployment of high-speed Internet access to rural regions and other areas. The administration is considering tax credits, an open-access policy and changes to existing Federal Communications Commission regulations. Sources said the new policy would mostly benefit the Baby Bells, which compete with cable broadband. At deadline there was wide speculation that President Bush would mention broadband during his Jan. 29 State of the Union speech.