WASHINGTON — The gloves came off Wednesday as numerous senators called FCC commissioners on the carpet for their decision to dramatically loosen media ownership regs.
In addition, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Commerce panel, said he would allow the committee to consider a bill to roll back the new regs, even though he did not support that action himself.
In a party-line split decision earlier this week, the GOP-controlled FCC voted to allow one company to own TV and newspapers in the same market and to make it easier for media congloms to buy more TV and radio stations across the country.
After the hearing, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leading critic of the new ownership rules, said the committee plans to prep a bill next week to restore to 35% the cap that limits the reach of a single company’s owned-and-operated stations nationwide. The FCC increased the cap to 45% Monday.
Dorgan said he would also try to add an amendment to reinstate the ban on a company owning a daily newspaper and a TV outlet in the same market, a reg the FCC largely erased in Monday’s decision.
Insiders predict the legislation will make it out of committee but face an uphill battle in the House, where FCC chieftain Michael Powell maintains powerful allies such as Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Any legislation Congress pursues to redefine the new media ownership regs will also require the president’s signature. Powell is a Bush appointee and would likely receive White House support for his new rules unless a public backlash makes it politically difficult.
Despite such high hurdles, Dorgan said he was determined to push the issue.
“We have to take one step at a time,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “We’ve got to begin building … I think there is going to be a groundswell of opposition the more the public hears about the changes.”
Powell and the other two GOP commissioners at the agency, Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin, faced a tough round of questioning from most of the senators on the committee. The harshest criticism came from Democrats, but some Republicans took several swipes, as well.
Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, is one of the main authors of legislation to return the national cap to 35%.
‘Spin and fraud’
Hollings accused Powell of a “dizzying” amount of “spin and fraud.”
“While Monday’s decision promising further deregulation may well be celebrated in a few New York and Hollywood boardrooms, it will be remembered as a dark day in thousands of American communities who look to the FCC to ensure that use of the public airwaves serves the interests of all Americans, not the economic self-interest of a chosen few,” he said.
In defense of the Republicans’ vote, Powell argued the new rules would only create more diversity and competition in the media marketplace. He blamed the courts and Congress’ 1996 Telecommunications Act for creating a “deregulatory bias” he was required, by law, to follow.
“The FCC is an administrative agency, and it is constitutionally bound to comply with Congress’ actions,” he said. “I must object to claims that we engaged in gratuitous deregulation. I believe we did our job and we did it well.”
Several Republicans, including Sen. John Sununu (N.H.) and George Allen (Va.), lauded Powell’s actions.
At times the attacks were particularly vicious. Known for her tough interrogations, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) assailed Abernathy for dismissing concern by Congress and the public as unfounded fear.
“Just because you sit behind a microphone doesn’t make you smarter,” Boxer lectured Abernathy. “To dismiss people as acting on fear is offensive — it is offensive to this Congress, and it is offensive to the people of California.”