Media consolidation is yet again rejected by the courts. It is time the Federal Communications Commission follow the court's lead and create strong rules that ban media cross ownership.
The Federal Communications Commission can no longer dismiss good public policy and ignore its own regulations. Not after an appellate court again tossed the commission’s media-ownership rules.
This most recent setback to efforts to upend cross-ownership rules, which have been in effect since 1975 and prevent a company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market, provides FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski with an opportunity to codify strong rules that ensure a healthy press.
Bold action has not defined Genachowski’s leadership since he was appointed by President Obama to head the regulatory commission. He passed a weak set of net-neutrality rules and commissioned a study about the future of journalism that stated what is already known about the problems facing journalism. The study should have created a road map for the FCC. Instead it had suggestions for Congress and philanthropists about how to help journalism and very little for the FCC.
There is no reason for Genachowski to get this wrong with the weight of the court and a majority of Democrats on the commission.
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Last week, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia rejected the FCC’s relaxing of the cross-ownership rules in 2007.
The rules, which were crafted by former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, would have allowed a company to own a newspaper and broadcast station in any of the nation’s top 20 media markets as long as there were at least eight media outlets in the market. If the combination included a television station, that station could not be among the top four in that market. Martin also included a loophole for more widespread consolidation allowing the FCC to grant waivers for companies that did not meet the criteria.
This is not the first time the 3rd Circuit has ruled against the FCC’s efforts to undo cross-ownership rules. In 2004, the court decided against then-Chairman Michael Powell’s media-ownership rules.
The court was right in 2004 and it is right again in 2011. It is time the FCC fell in step. It has the chance to do so with its quadrennial review of media-ownership rules. The review was supposed to be completed last year but was delayed by the commission until the court ruled on the 2007 changes.
No more excuses. The court has ruled. Genachowski must boldly lead and do what has not been done in many years at the FCC: craft policy that is in the interest of the people, not the corporations.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that consolidation damages local and investigative reporting. Yet the FCC keeps passing rule changes that encourage consolidation. Even worse, the commission weakly, if at all, enforces the rules it has on the books.
No more. This repeated rejection of consolidation should empower Genachowski. He should listen closely to Commissioner Michael Copps, who has tirelessly fought for tough regulations. He should remember that his boss opposed media consolidation as a candidate for president and as a senator wrote a letter to the FCC condemning the 2007 rules.
Genachowski should read Newton Minow’s speech to National Association of Broadcasters in 1961. Minow, who was the new FCC chairman, did something I could barely imagine the head of a regulatory agency doing today. He lectured the broadcasters about the quality of their programming and reminded them of their duty to public service.
Part way through his speech, Minow said, “I intend to take the job of chairman of the FCC very seriously. I happen to believe in the gravity of my own particular sector of the New Frontier. There will be times perhaps when you will consider that I take myself or my job too seriously. Frankly, I don’t care if you do. For I am convinced that either one takes this job seriously — or one can be seriously taken.”
Words that are as relevant today as they were in 1961. If Genachowski acts in the public’s interest, he will be remembered as a chairman like Minow. If not, he will be paired with the likes of Powell and Martin.
Ryan Blethen’s column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is: email@example.com