Stricter rules loom for media owners

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission defied some members of Congress in 2007 by easing a ban on ownership of a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city.

Yesterday, the lawmakers took the first step toward getting even.

The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a rare "resolution of disapproval" to invalidate the FCC's new rules, as concerns about media consolidation escalated in the wake of News Corp.'s negotiations to buy a second New York newspaper.

"We really do literally have five or six major corporations in this country that determine for the most part what Americans see, hear and read every day," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota who is the lead sponsor of the resolution. "I don't think that's healthy for our country."

Dorgan has 25 senators behind his bill, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, and is confident it will pass the Senate.

A similar bill has been proposed in the House.

The Bush administration has threatened a veto, but Dorgan could try to attach the resolution to a must-pass bill to make it harder for the White House to block.

Despite warnings from Dorgan and other lawmakers that he was acting rashly, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin pushed a plan through the agency in December allowing ownership of a newspaper and a broadcast TV or radio station in the 20 largest markets, with some limitations.

Tribune Co. of Chicago, owner of The Sun, Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV, was among the newspaper companies to back the changes, saying the industry needed more freedom to consolidate with TV and radio stations in local markets.

To allow Tribune to close its deal to go private last year, the FCC granted the company a permanent waiver for its newspaper-and-broadcast combination in Chicago and two-year waivers for combinations in Los Angeles, New York, South Florida and Hartford, Conn.

If the FCC's new cross-ownership rules are invalidated, Tribune could be forced to sell some of its properties when the temporary waivers expire.

Martin, a Republican, defended the change in the cross-ownership rule yesterday.

"I think it's important that we try to reform our media ownership rules to reflect the changes in the marketplace ... particularly the challenges that the newspaper industry faces," he told reporters.

News Corp.'s pursuit of Newsday, a Tribune newspaper based in the New York suburb of Melville, has provided ammunition to Dorgan and other opponents of media consolidation. News Corp. already owns two TV stations, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, which is based in New York but is considered a national rather than a local paper.

News Corp.'s deal for Newsday, valued at $580 million, probably would undergo antitrust review by the Justice Department.

A Newsday purchase also would complicate News Corp.'s attempts to renew FCC licenses for its TV stations in the New York market, which expired last year.

Even under relaxed cross-ownership rules, News Corp. would need waivers to continue operating the stations if it finalizes a deal for Newsday before the licenses are renewed.

Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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