Amid criticism, agency says cross-ownership would strengthen newsgathering

The FCC is pushing back against criticism from public interest groups over the agency’s proposed changes to media ownership rules, which have been circulating for several weeks among commissioners for a vote.

Last week, Free Press blasted the proposed changes as “little more than a gift-wrapped giveaway to Rupert Murdoch,” a reference to the notion that the changes would allow Murdoch to purchase the Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune, located in two markets where News Corp. owns major TV stations.

An FCC official, however, said that while the proposed order would relax or eliminate rules on newspaper and TV cross-ownership, buyers in the top-20 markets would have to obtain a waiver, subject to a series of tests to determine if the combination still serves the public interest. For example, in those markets, there still would be restrictions on owning one of the top-four TV stations in a market as well as a newspaper. Also in place would be a so-called eight remaining voices test, a measurement of whether there are enough other major media entities in a market to represent a diversity of views.

Bill Lake, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, said in a statement that “reports that the order would make it easier to own a top TV station and a major newspaper in a market are wrong. In fact, the order would strengthen the current rule by creating an express presumption against a waiver of the cross-ownership ban to allow such a combination. In addition, the proposed order preserves the existing TV duopoly rule, which forbids ownership of more than one of the top-four TV stations in any one market.”

The changes also would eliminate prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross-ownership.

Last week, nine Democratic senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, sent a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski asking him not to proceed on the proposed rule changes until there could be further study on the impact on media ownership by women and minorities. They also cited concerns over localism.

The rationale behind the changes is that newspaper-TV station cross-ownership could strengthen newsgathering and boost local journalism, as papers struggle to find their footing in the digital age.

An FCC spokesman said that its draft order “includes a comprehensive analysis of viewpoint diversity based on an extensive record developed over the last three years, including six public hearings held across the country; two rounds of public comment; and 11 economic studies that were competitively bid, subject to peer review and publicly released.”

The spokesman said last month that the proposed changes continue to promote media diversity by “retaining some of the consolidation limits and through a number of measures that provide broadcast opportunities for small business.”

It’s still unclear when the commissioners will finalize a vote.

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