Editorial: Barton Must Wield His Power Wisely

Feb 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The imminent change of leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee could have a profound impact on the media business at a time of tremendous change. As Rep. Billy Tauzin, a fiery and often controversial Louisiana Republican, steps down as chairman of the panel, fellow Republican Joe Barton of Texas, a relative unknown in media industry circles, is poised to take over that important leadership role. We hope the transition will signal a step forward for the media after a period in which Rep. Tauzin’s close ties to top industry leaders and lobbyists appeared to color his agenda in favor of the biggest players in the business.
But Rep. Barton’s arrival raises a new set of concerns for the media. A former oil industry engineer, he has paid more attention during his political career to energy matters than to media issues. He faces a steep learning curve if he is to gain insight into the complexities and unprecedented difficulties that confront the media during the digital transition. Whatever one thinks about his tactics or his policies, few would deny that Rep. Tauzin is extremely knowledgeable about the media.
Rep. Barton, whose conservative record gives the indication that he will lean toward deregulation, would be well advised to proceed cautiously. He must understand that he is stepping into a pivotal role in a media world in which consolidation continues to speed along, as shown last week by Comcast’s bid for Disney. He should be realistic about the already troubling impact of media concentration and should take seriously the responsibility of government to ensure that the needs of consumers continue to be met. He should recognize that as fewer and fewer corporations control more and more of the industry’s assets, independent producers are being squeezed out, diversity is suffering and the voice of the public is becoming lost in the shuffle.
We call on Rep. Barton to view his powerful new position as an opportunity to serve the public interest by ensuring that broadcasters and other media concerns continue to do the same. It would be a mistake for him to come in and try to tear down existing regulations, a lesson Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell learned last year when the public and Congress responded with alarm to his sweeping deregulatory agenda.
If he avoids the kind of behavior that so often cast his predecessor in an unfavorable light, Rep. Barton could indeed become an agent for positive change. But if he proves to be more of a tool for the biggest corporations, is unresponsive to the public interest, tries to impose change too swiftly or uses his new post to push his personal agenda, the effects could be devastating for the media, the public and Rep. Barton himself.