The Washington Post

FCC relax of media ownership ban draws fire

A battle over media ownership rules is heating up. So much so that the Federal Communications Commission has tossed the hot potato issue until next year.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski last month circulated a proposal that would relax a ban that prevents the owner of a television broadcast station from also owning a newspaper in the same town or city.

On Tuesday, amid criticism from a public interest group and the Hill, the FCC said it would take more comments on the issue, which would push a vote on Genachowski’s proposal to January at the earliest.

Changes in the 1975 media cross-ownership ban has sparked criticism by some public interest groups who fear the move would lead to greater concentration among the nation’s biggest media conglomerates.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said in a letter to Genachowski that she opposed the proposal and criticized the agency for considering new rules in a private vote.

“These rules were put in place and have remained in place because they support diversity, competition, and localism in the public interest,” Cantwell said in her letter late last month. She said even with the current rules, diversity among media owners has declined. To relax the rules would quicken that decline, she said.

The chairman’s office defends the proposal, which is being shown privately to the agency’s other four commissioners. Genachowski’s proposal would make it nearly impossible for a top TV station to buy a major newspaper, they said. In other words, the proposal wouldn’t allow a mega media merger like News Corp. and the Tribune Company .

“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,” said Bill Lake, the FCC’s Media Bureau chief. “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 market.” 

Genachowski has said, however, that the ban is outdated in a shifting media environment, where consumers get news from multiple formats. Some minority advocates also say they would like to see more mergers in local markets, where struggling news outlets can combine resources.

But public interest group Free Press wants greater assurance that major media mergers wouldn’t happen under the proposal.

“The FCC hasn't released text or held any public hearings on its final proposal, and that lack of transparency is part of the problem here,” said Matt Wood. “But based on what we do know, it is flat-out wrong to suggest that the top-4 ranking exemption would prevent any possible ownership of a top TV station and a major newspaper in the same market.”

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.



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