More than a year after the Federal Communications Commission narrowly endorsed a radical rewrite of media ownership laws in a manner that would have strengthened the hand of media conglomerates, a US appeals court has determined that the FCC went too far.
In one of the most significant setbacks for the Bush Administration’s campaign to rewrite regulations to favor big business, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia rejected the rationale the FCC used to ease media ownership limits and ordered the commission to revisit the issue with an eye toward protecting, rather than undermining, the public interest in diverse ownership or local and national media.
The appeals court panel, which last year stayed implementation of the rule changes, complained that the FCC had relied on flawed reasoning and reached contradictory conclusions to justify rule changes that would have allowed the consolidation of media ownership in local markets across the country. One of the FCC approved rule changes would have allowed a single corporation to own the daily newspaper, as many as eight radio stations and as many as three television stations in the same community.
“The court ruling affirmed what many of us have been saying for a long time,” explained US Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, one of the most ardent Congressional critics of the rule changes. “Chairman Powell’s gift to media conglomerates was made without basis in legitimate research. He cannot show that the commission’s decision was made in the public’s best interest. On the contrary, it threatens the ability of the public to have its voice heard and to have access to other diverse voices.”
The court’s 2-1 ruling requires the FCC to come up with a research-based argument that some public good will be served by allowing the development of a one-size-fits-all media. That’s going to be hard to do, as the court rejected the industry-friendly methodology the commission had used to justify the rule changes. At the least, a new push to relax the rules would take months, and perhaps years, to complete.
And time may not be on the side of Powell or his big-media allies.
With the presidential election approaching, the appeals court decision would seem to assure that media ownership regulations will not be loosened before this fall’s presidential vote. That raises the prospect that big media’s long campaign to relax the regulation of ownership limits on the television, radio and newspaper industries could be thwarted for years to come. If President Bush, a prime proponent of the rule changes, is defeated, Democrat John Kerry would be in a position to create an FCC majority that supports diversity in media ownership.
The commission is currently split 3-2, with three Republicans supporting special-interest demands for relaxation of ownership rules and two Democrats siding with public-interest groups that oppose the lifting of limits on media monopoly. If elected, Kerry could select a Democrat to replace Powell as chairman and, while past Democratic Presidents have often made bad appointments to the FCC, unions that are close to Kerry have been pressuring him to pick a new member who would side with Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.