The Federal Communications Commission's likely action to relax major media ownership rules is forging some unexpected political alliances. For instance, for the first time a group known as "CodePink, Women for Peace" finds itself on the same side of a fight as the National Rifle Association.
These ideologically disparate groups share a common concern. If the FCC votes to ease ownership rules, several organizations -- left and right -- fear they will lose access to the public airwaves. Traditional foes are even speaking a common language, shared by some Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
A wave of media deals and consolidation is likely to follow the FCC's June 2 vote, as companies buy and swap newspapers, television and radio stations. The agency has spent the past 18 months reviewing data, but the political battle is just igniting, as the FCC's three Republican commissioners favor relaxing the rules while the two Democrats oppose such action. Outside the FCC, however, the battle lines are less clear.
Last Thursday, at the FCC's open meeting at its Southwest Washington headquarters, proceedings were twice interrupted by CodePink, a theatrical and liberal organization whose modus operandi is to present pink slips -- literally, a piece of frilly pink lingerie -- to public officials they wish to fire for poor job performance.
The group tried and failed to present a pink slip to FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell for favoring rule changes that would further media consolidation in a way the group considers a threat to the "future of democracy." Fewer media owners means fewer voices, the group argues.
The day before, the conservative NRA implored its 4 million members to contact the five FCC commissioners and urge them to vote against easing the ownership rules, "for the sake of our democracy."
If more media outlets are placed in fewer hands, "gun-hating media giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC . . . could literally silence your NRA and prevent us from communicating with your fellow Americans by refusing to sell us television, radio or newspaper advertising at any price," reads the NRA's appeal to its members.
"It does put us in the position of strange bedfellows," said Gael Murphy, Washington coordinator for CodePink, which also pink-slipped Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for what the group considered their hawkish stance on the Iraq war. "But we do believe in diversity and that includes hearing from people we don't want to hear from," she said, referring to the NRA.Wayne R. LaPierre Jr., president of the NRA, said he had no problem siding with CodePink on this issue, saying his group routinely has ads rejected by what he calls ideologically opposed television networks and stations.
"I am all for citizens having the ability to express their views. Diversity is what America is all about," he said. "Where I have a problem is when I get four or five big media conglomerates choking off dissenting points of view. That will be worse if Powell's consolidation is allowed to go forward."
By Friday, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps's office had received 30,000 communications from NRA members.
At no other time have so many major media ownership rules appeared about to change. Every two years, Congress requires the FCC to review its ownership rules, to make sure they are in step with a technologically changing marketplace, in which cable and the Internet offer consumers more choices for news and information.
This time, the FCC is under additional pressure from the U.S. District Court in Washington, which has tossed out five of the agency's ownership rules in recent years. The court has told the FCC it must better justify why the ownership rules should remain.
If the FCC revises its rules, a big newspaper company such as The Washington Post Co. would be allowed to buy the top-rated television or radio station in the same city, a purchase that is now prohibited. (The Post Co. has not said if it is interested in such an acquisition.) Also, media giants, such as the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, and Viacom Inc., which owns CBS, could buy more television stations, expanding their national reach. In large cities such as New York, another rule change would allow a company to increase from two to three the number of television stations it owns, eliminating a key competitor and adding millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
Past fights on consolidation have generally split along party lines -- Republicans for, Democrats against. This time, however, the cleavage is not so neat, largely because the debate is splitting conservatives internally.
Economic conservatives have largely backed consolidation, saying that technologies such as cable television and the Internet have made long-standing ownership rules obsolete. Major media companies should not be prevented from expanding by rules that are out of step with the times and the free market, many conservative lawmakers have said.
But some socially conservative groups oppose consolidation, saying it leads to indecency on the airwaves and further fortifies what these groups consider the dominant left-wing point of view in news and entertainment programming.
Joining CodePink and the NRA in opposing further consolidation is L. Brent Bozell III's conservative Parents Television Council, which says that the media oligopoly has contributed to a coarsening of television programming.
"Now ask the media behemoths how important the issue of indecency is to them," Bozell testified during a February FCC hearing in Richmond.
Other socially conservative or religious groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Family Research Council and Morality in the Media, have weighed in against further media consolidation, generally on indecency grounds and fears that more media mergers will mean less good television for children.
On Capitol Hill, dozens of House Democrats have urged Powell to delay the June 2 vote and to make public his agency's recommendations, both of which he has declined to do. The House's Republican leadership, meanwhile, urged Powell to "resist the efforts of those who would delay the full and fair examination of these rules."
But some Republicans, mainly within the Senate, have broken ranks with their GOP counterparts.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) sided with Democrats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, saying that the FCC must "justify how any changes in media rules will promote the goals of diversity, competition and localism."
At a committee hearing May 13, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said: "The media ownership rules are working well. We should leave them as they are." In April, Lott, Snowe and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) joined 11 fellow members of the commerce panel in a letter to Powell, urging him to make public his staff's recommendations on changing the ownership rules. Snowe's fellow Mainer, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, and Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) also joined.
The media baron who best personifies the conservative split on this issue is Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp.
For many social conservatives and religious groups, Murdoch is an infuriating puzzle: They love his Fox News Channel, which they regard as balancing the left-leaning media dominance of network news and CNN. But they hate some of the Fox network's recent shows, such as "Temptation Island," which they believe corrode family values.
At the same time, Murdoch is a key player in the possible media consolidation. He wants to expand his reach by buying DirecTV, adding another satellite service to his empire of news, sports, movies and television shows.
Murdoch recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee, whose Republican members thanked him for this Fox News Channel and lauded him as a great entrepreneur.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is skeptical of the DirecTV merger and has called Murdoch as a witness before his Commerce committee this Thursday.