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Getting the Rollback Rolling

Aug 4, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, said he was first convinced that efforts to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership deregulation had legs June 3, the day after the agency’s controversial vote.
Like dozens of other Washington insiders, Mr. Chester was sitting on the edge of his seat as the Senate Commerce Committee grilled FCC commissioners about their decision, and as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a conservative Republican from Texas, announced that she believes there is already an “alarming” amount of concentration in media markets.
“I don’t want to see other cities get into that kind of concentration,” Sen. Hutchison said.
To Mr. Chester, Sen. Hutchison’s remark signaled that the campaign to roll back the decisions by the FCC’s GOP majority had passed a major test, demonstrating that opposition was bipartisan and reached the far extremes of the political spectrum represented on Capitol Hill.
“If Kay Bailey Hutchison understood the threat, then we had reached the vast majority of the American public,” Mr. Chester said.
Less than three weeks later, a bipartisan majority of the Senate Commerce Committee gave Mr. Chester and other FCC critics more to cheer about when it approved legislation that would overrule key provisions of the FCC decision, including ones that raised the cap on national TV ownership from 35 percent to 45 percent of TV homes and relaxed a regulation barring broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets.
Shortly thereafter, the House of Representatives, despite opposition from the White House and House GOP leaders, voted 400-21 to approve an appropriations bill that includes a provision that would roll back the national ownership cap to 35 percent. And just last week, a bipartisan coalition of senators led by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., announced a vote on a far more ambitious bill in early September that would overturn all of the FCC’s deregulation.
“We are moving to roll back one of the most complete cave-ins to corporate interests I’ve ever seen by what is supposed to be a federal regulatory agency,” Sen. Dorgan said.
Declarations of victory by critics of the FCC’s deregulation are premature, in part because House GOP leaders and White House officials have vowed to try to block the rollback effort.
But key industry sources last week said they are now convinced that at least part of the FCC’s deregulation will fall under what has developed into a tidal wave of public and congressional opposition.
“Momentum is only going to grow,” said Chris Murray, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union.
The fact that the FCC’s deregulation has encountered such monumental resistance has surprised many political observers because the vast majority of agency proceedings are inside-the-beltway affairs that are resolved quietly by a handful of industry and agency lawyers.
But industry and watchdog sources last week said a series of serious miscalculations and tactical blunders by FCC Republicans and the industry alike bear ultimate responsibility for the current controversy, starting with a gross underestimation of the magnitude of opposition to media industry deregulation by the public and on Capitol Hill.
Sources said one of Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s biggest mistakes was to roll all of the deregulation on the table-encompassing newspapers, TV and radio stations-into one massive proceeding, instead of sticking to the agency’s time-worn practice of quietly chipping away at individual rules one by one.
Among other things, Mr. Powell’s decision ensured that all of the FCC’s deregulation would be jeopardized by the bitter fight between the networks and the affiliates over one of the rulings involved-the agency’s decision to raise the cap on national TV ownership from 35 percent to 45 percent of TV homes.
“Instead of the heat being focused on one issue, it spread to all of the issues,” said Alan Frank, chairman of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance and president of Post-Newsweek Stations.
But according to other industry sources, NASA and the National Association of Broadcasters are at least as culpable as the FCC for the re-regulatory fever sweeping Capitol Hill, because they opened the door for legislation by lobbying for a bill that would roll back the cap to 35 percent.
“That invited Congress to look at every aspect of broadcast ownership,” said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune VP, Washington.
“Local broadcasters may well end up winning the 35 percent cap battle, only to lose the greater battle,” added Ken Johnson, press secretary to Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. “Everything is on the table now-licensing, community standards, free airtime for politicians, spectrum fees-you name it and the critics are piling on.”
The sheer scale of the FCC’s June 2 decision-which would permit a single company to own up to three TV stations, the daily newspaper, the cable system and several radio stations in some communities-gave critics a billboard to get the attention of lawmakers who depend on the media for their political survival.
“[Mr. Powell] never realized that he was setting up a huge bull’s-eye here for people to shoot at,” said one industry source.
But Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was quick to recognize the vulnerability, and he exploited it by publicizing the deregulatory ambitions of his Republican colleagues in a series of public field hearings, winning the support of a broad coalition of groups ranging from independent TV producers in Hollywood to the National Rifle Association.
“He ran around the country generating grass-roots opposition, which he did very effectively,” Tribune’s Mr. Sheehan said.
Sources said the FCC’s Mr. Powell also failed miserably on the public relations front by refusing the pleas of key lawmakers and a growing chorus of critics to publish the precise proposed rule changes the FCC had in mind before the final vote.
In addition, Mr. Powell’s refusal to sponsor more than one public hearing on the subject turned into a double-barreled self-inflicted shot to his foot.
While Mr. Powell argued that the agency lacked the resources to underwrite additional “whistle-stop” excursions into the countryside, his critics successfully portrayed his decision as evidence that he had already made up his mind and didn’t care what the public thought.
For reasons that no one can be entirely sure of, sources said, the FCC’s decision struck a raw nerve with the public.
“While the FCC was trying to dress it up as a purely economic issue, it’s not and never will be,” said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Community. “It’s a fundamental decision that affects our democracy profoundly, and it was made by three unelected officials.”