In an unprecedented rebuff to the agenda of big media, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved by a 400-21 vote an appropriations bill that includes languarge blocking implementation of a Federal Communications Commission rule change designed to allow a single corporation to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American viewers. That FCC rule change, for which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and other media giants had mounted a fierce lobbying campaign, also faces broad opposition in the Senate. With the House echoing that opposition, Congress is currently positioned to block implementation of a rule change that is near and dear to the hearts–and bottom lines–of America’s media giants.
While the Bush White House continues to promote the big-media agenda as part of an overall strategy of reworking regulations to favor large corporate campaign givers — raising the prospect that the president might veto Congressional moves to prevent the FCC from implementing this rule change — veteran Capitol Hill observers say public opposition to the FCC rule changes has grown so powerful that even the president could change his tune. “If the White House is threatening a veto on this, they offer that at their own peril,” explained Andy Davis, an aide to US Sen. Ernest Hollings, the powerful South Carolina Democrat who is a key player behind the Senate effort to reverse the FCC’s June 2 decision to raise the television ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent. “This is an issue that has enormously broad bipartisan support. People are very passionate about this issue.”
Republican leaders in the House felt that passion this week, as many members of their own caucus signaled that they would support reversal of the FCC’s decision to raise the ownership cap. That caused the leadership to back off efforts to strip the appropriations bill language that prevents the FCC from implementing the change.
But the real measure of the extent to which the dynamic in Congress is shifting came in one of the first serious floor fights in recent years on a media ownership issue.
The ownership cap is just one of a number of rule changes approved by the FCC and it is not the worst of them. The most troubling rewrite of the rules by the commission is a measure that allows a single company to own television and radio stations, the local daily newspaper and the cable system in the same city. The FCC’s move to lift limits on “cross-ownership” poses a genuine threat to competition, diversity and local programming and it is opposed by religious, labor, civil rights and community groups, as well as conservatives such as New York Times columnist William Safire.
In the Senate, there is bipartisan support for reversing the FCC’s cross-ownership rule change. But in the House, Republican and Democratic leaders blocked efforts to amend the appropriations bill to include language that would prevent the FCC from implementing this industry-backed rule shift. That led to a remarkable revolt on the House floor Tuesday, and provoked the most engaged debate on media and democracy issues that the Congress has seen in modern times.