Deregulation foes pinning hopes on Hill

Both left- and right-wing groups protesting proposal

WASHINGTON — With today’s FCC vote to loosen a host of media ownership rules all but a fait accompli, consolidation critics are looking to Congress as their last great hope.

The Senate Commerce Committee is skedded to grill all five FCC commissioners about their massive rewrite Wednesday, the first time the agency’s top officials have been hauled before Congress on the issue.

The hearing will not be a cakewalk.

So far, nine of the powerful panel’s 23 members, representing both sides of the aisle, have expressed some form of opposition to FCC topper Michael Powell’s proposal.

Some of the committee’s most powerful members have not been shy about skewering corporate reps called to testify so far, while a handful of Republicans have been equally vigilant in backing Powell.

Diverse opposition

In the last week, the issue has sparked national media attention and a host of high-profile opponents.

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and chairman of Turner Enterprises, added to the media maelstrom Friday. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, Turner forcefully argued against the FCC’s move to hand big media companies even more power.

“I oppose these rules,” Turner wrote, referring to the FCC plans. “They will stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete.”

FCC officials are bracing for a crush of protesters determined to disrupt today’s landmark vote.

Groups such as Moveon.org, Code Pink and Global Exchange were mobilizing their members late last week to show up at FCC headquarters today.

Their members spent last week flooding FCC topper Michael Powell and his staff’s telephone lines and email. At one point, the FCC public comment Web site became overloaded and shut down.

Plenty of conservative groups will also show up en masse to oppose the move as well.

While members of Moveon.org sent the FCC 180,000 letters lambasting the plans, the National Rifle Assn. is responsible for 250,000 postcards voicing similar concerns.

Turning up pressure

Moveon.org already has some experience getting Congress’ attention.

In late February the org held a “virtual march” on Washington, jamming House and Senate offices with several hundred thousand phone calls and e-mails, eventually shutting down some phone lines.

“I don’t know of another time that people have been this up in arms about an FCC decision,” said Moveon.org campaign director Eli Pariser. “Congress has been getting the feedback. If they are responsible they will step up to the plate and do something about it and we will be pressuring them to do so.”

If the diverse group of critics can train their fire on Capitol Hill in the weeks and months after the vote, they may be able to force Congress to sit up and take notice, a difficult job that requires a serious and sustained public outcry.

Solons weighing in

“There are too many people who are invested in this politically. I don’t think this idea is going to go away,” actor Richard Dreyfuss predicted in a conference call last week with reporters organized by the Writers Guild of America West. “No one is going to think that June 2 is the end of the story.”

Opponents have several battle-tested warriors on their side.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, have already sponsored a bill to undo one major rules change the FCC plans to make.

Right now, the agency is expected to raise the cap on how much of the national audience one company can control from 35% to 45%. The bill would keep the 35% cap intact. A similar bill is circulating in the House.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who chairs the Commerce panel, has expressed ambivalence about the direction the FCC has taken. He refused to call officials to testify before the committee before today’s vote, arguing that the independence of the agency should be respected.

While McCain has refused to sign onto Hollings’ bill, he has indicated privately that he would not block it either. If there were enough momentum behind the legislation, McCain has told colleagues he will hold a hearing and let people sound off on all the pros and cons.

Alaskan power broker

The future of the rules could lie in Stevens’ hands.

The cantankerous elder statesman controls the purse strings of Congress as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and he is known as a bulldog who doesn’t let go of his pet issues without a serious fight.

Although Stevens has not said how he will combat the FCC decision, if at all, knowledgeable Senate staffers say he has a number of options.

Among them: Stevens could add his bill to replace the 35% cap as a rider to an important spending bill or even threaten to cut the FCC’s budget if it doesn’t go back to the drawing board and retool the rewrite.