A former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said rules limiting common ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same market should be gutted -- even if it clears the way for media mogul Rupert Murdoch to control more news outlets including the Los Angeles Times.
Reed Hundt, Democratic chairman of the FCC during much of the Clinton administration and a self-confessed progressive, said in a speech Wednesday at UCLA that the long-standing rule is "perverse" and needs to be thrown out.
Noting the growth of new platforms for news and other content since the rule was created in the 1970s and the difficult economics of the newspaper industry, Hundt said "if a TV station wants to help a newspaper survive, the FCC should welcome that initiative."
Although Hundt is now advocating doing away with the rule, his own FCC did not make a serious attempt to remove it because the White House wanted to keep it intact. "It was an open secret that President Clinton did not want the newspaper-broadcast ownership rule repealed as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act," Hundt said.
In his remarks, Hundt talked extensively about the Los Angeles Times and its parent Tribune Co., which has retained investment bankers to field offers for The Times and its other papers, including the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun.
Addressing speculation that billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who head Koch Industries, are contemplating a bid for Tribune's papers, Hundt said, "I can't imagine anything good from the Koch family owning the Los Angeles Times."
The Koch brothers, with holdings in consumer products, oil refining and fertilizer, are prominent conservative activists.
"When I think of the ways they use money and media to misinform, misdirect and make miserable all of us, I conclude: Only in America," Hundt said.
A spokeswoman for Koch Industries did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Hundt's remarks.
The publicity-shy Koch brothers have confirmed an interest in acquiring newspapers. In a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal, Charles Koch said, "There is a need for focus on real news, not news with an agenda or news that is really editorializing." He declined to comment on the future of Tribune Co.
But he said he would prefer to see the Los Angeles Times and Tribune's other papers in the mogul's hands than with the Koch brothers.
"I'd rather have Murdoch than the Kochs own The Times, if it came down to that choice," he said.
The FCC's current cross-ownership rules would prohibit Murdoch from acquiring the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune because his company also owns TV stations in those markets. But News Corp. is aggressively lobbying to have the rules relaxed or removed and recently hired Toni Cook Bush, a veteran D.C. insider, to help its efforts.
While Hundt made his opinion on the Kochs and Murdoch quite clear, he also noted that the FCC should not let its own political views determine who may wind up owning the Tribune papers.
"The former FCC chair can have a preference about who owns a newspaper or a TV station. But the current FCC chair should let the market decide that," Hundt concluded. "One of the glories of the United States -- one of the many things that make our system better than the system in China or Russia -- is that we truly do believe in free speech. When applied to media, that means we should honor the freedom to own the means of speech."
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.