July 23, 2003 4:30 PM PDT

House votes to ax media ownership plan

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to tighten regulations limiting TV stations, radio stations and newspapers, setting the stage for a possible showdown with the White House.

By a vote of 400 to 21, House legislators voted for a bill that would essentially overturn a decision last month by the Federal Communications Commission to relax the regulations. A majority of the FCC's commissioners argued that the decades-old regulations were obsolete in part because of the rise of the Internet and other new technologies.

The House measure, part of a larger appropriations bill, says that the FCC may not approve TV station deals if the new owner would have an "aggregate national audience reach" of more than 35 percent, which would apply to about half a percent of stations nationwide. "Our democracy is strong," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement. "It is not threatened by half a percent. It would be irresponsible to ignore the diversity of viewpoints provided by cable, satellite and the Internet."

The stiff rebuke from the House is not the final word on the matter. Key Republicans in the Senate favor keeping the FCC's rules intact, and the White House has signaled that President Bush might veto the bill if the final version is not modified.

In a letter to Congress on Monday, Joshua Bolten, head of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, said that the FCC had "conducted an unprecedented and exhaustive review of its existing media ownership rules." Bolten said Bush's advisers "would recommend that he veto the bill."

Since the FCC's vote June 2, criticism of the commission's decision had grown from the left and right of the conventional political spectrum. Both ends seemed to feel that media consolidation favored their political opponents. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the FCC's move as a step toward "monopolization," while the National Rifle Association told its members that "only big media's voice will be heard."

They argue that changing ownership limits from 35 percent to 45 percent would reduce the diversity of viewpoints.

Powell and his allies at the FCC have offered two major justifications for relaxing ownership restrictions.

At the time of last month's vote, Powell said the United States needs "modern rules that take into account the explosion of new media outlets" and are not tied to a "bygone black-and-white era." Technology offers a wealth of media alternatives--such as the Internet, 802.11 wireless networks, XM and Sirius satellite radio, DirecTV, hundreds of cable channels, low-power FM radio--that were not available a generation ago, the argument goes.

The second justification for modifying the old rules is a series of judicial rulings that gradually gutted some of the FCC's media ownership guidelines. In some of the cases, federal judges have declared the rules unconstitutional and have even ordered the commission to rewrite them.

In a February 2002 decision, the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with media companies, including Fox, NBC and Viacom, and the National Association of Broadcasters against the FCC. The organizations had claimed the FCC exceeded its own authority and violated the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act; the court agreed, saying the FCC's regulations were "arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law."

 

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