Mad as Hell at the FCC

A backlash is growing against the move to slacken media rules

The Federal Communications Commission had just voted to relax rules on media mergers when two women in the audience shattered the decorum. "Mass deregulation of mass communication is the end of democracy," they chanted loudly, even as guards whisked them away. The unruly pair were members of Code Pink, a San Francisco women's group opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq -- and whose new cause is fighting media consolidation.

In the coming months, the women in pink will join forces with the men in camouflage. The 4.2 million-member National Rifle Assn. -- along with a small army of other groups -- hopes to overturn a June 2 FCC vote allowing TV networks to own more of their local affiliates -- and letting newspapers buy TV stations in the market where they publish. The loose coalition, which includes everyone from the good-government group Common Cause to pro-lifers at the Family Research Council, got a big hand on June 4 from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). The Senate Commerce Committee chairman vowed to clarify in law that Congress permits the FCC both to reregulate, as well as to deregulate, media rules. Says McCain, who normally favors deregulation: "I've come to believe there must be some limits on media ownership."

Few FCC actions set off firestorms. But this one, under the leadership of FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, prompted a record 520,000 e-mails -- and the sheer volume made the agency's computers crash. "The commission's drive to loosen the rules...awoke a sleeping giant," says Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who led the charge against media deregulation. Most opponents fear that consolidation of America's media in the hands of a few owners could quash minority viewpoints. "Big media conglomerates are more than willing to shut you out altogether," says NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre. He complains that media outlets already refuse to carry some NRA ads.

More and more lawmakers are worried, too. And while most Republican leaders are loath to do anything to reverse the FCC's ruling, lawmakers in both parties are floating proposals to rein in the agency. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) each want to introduce a rarely used legislative veto allowing Congress to overrule an agency by a simple vote. And Senators Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) are pushing a measure to keep an old rule allowing TV networks to own local stations reaching just 35% of the nation's audience, down from the new 45% limit.

So will the backlash bring about a weakening of the new media rules? The lawmaker to watch may be Senate Appropriations Chairman Stevens, whose panel holds the FCC's purse strings. The senator's plan is to attach his proposal to the FCC's must-pass spending bill. By doing so, Stevens hopes to bypass House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), an FCC backer, who can bottle up anti-FCC measures that go before his committee.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates and a handful of small companies will attempt to take on the FCC in court. The family-owned Journal Inquirer newspaper in Manchester, Conn., and the California Small Business Assn. will probably sue the FCC for violating a federal law requiring it to consider the effect of rules on small business. Of the grassroots groups, Consumers Union is the most likely to litigate. It plans to file a lawsuit charging that the FCC failed to build an evidentiary record for its rules. Instead, says Co-Director Gene Kimmelman, they're "a hodgepodge of fact and fiction, twisted like a pretzel to get deregulatory results." The FCC declines to comment on potential litigation but says its rulemaking process was thorough.

The small fry aren't the only ones likely to head for the courts. Even as the foes of Big Media mobilize, the TV and newspaper giants are gearing up to sue the FCC for not going far enough. They will argue that the explosion of new media sources, such as cable and the Internet, make even the more liberal rules obsolete. The conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, which is likely to hear these cases, is expected to side with Big Media, making Congress the friendlier venue for the anti-FCC crowd. It will be an uphill fight, but the opponents of media deregulation are determined to show they can disable more than the FCC's e-mail system.

By Catherine Yang in Washington

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