Media Deregulation. (There Is No Silver Lining)

Article excerpt

One major victor on election night was Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and son of the Secretary of State). Powell's principal Congressional critic--Democrat Ernest "Fritz" Hollings--lost the chair of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and also the chair of a key subcommittee, thus eliminating the only obstacle to Powell's far-reaching proposals on media issues. The media lobby in Washington is already gloating over the restoration of GOP control; majority leader Trent Lott in particular is an avid supporter of industry interests.

The new Commerce chair is Republican John McCain, rightly described as a maverick on media issues. McCain, who generally supports media deregulation, is also widely acknowledged to be a key booster of Powell's career.

Hollings was unique among Congressional Democrats, who have generally remained silent on the Bush FCC proposals. (Too much campaign money and the power of the press have acted as powerful brakes on any public interest spirit.) He was seen as the public interest community's only major Congressional ally in the fight to retain key FCC media-ownership safeguards. In September Powell launched an ambitious proceeding that by spring could bring the end to a host of rules designed to insure diversity of media ownership--for example, policies that now prevent joint ownership of a newspaper and television station in the same market, and that prohibit one company from owning two major TV networks--and place at least some checks on corporate media power. Powell is the most deregulation-minded chairman of the FCC since the Reagan era; he believes that the US media environment is so diverse that most ownership safeguards are unnecessary. Given the 3-to-2 GOP majority Powell has at the FCC, it is very likely that his proposals will win approval. Media-industry experts are already preparing for a self-described "gold rush," when newspapers, TV stations and cable systems will be gobbled up by the conglomerates.

Media lobbyists have already breathed a public sigh of relief that Hollings won't be able to use the appropriations process to block Powell's agenda, as he threatened to do in his role as chair of the subcommittee funding the FCC. With Republican Ted Stevens as the new chair of the full Appropriations committee, Tribune Company lobbyist Shaun Sheehan told Broadcasting and Cable magazine that "deregulation is no longer under the appropriations cloud." Tribune--which owns such major outlets as the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and twenty-four TV stations--has been leading one of the most aggressive campaigns in support of changes in media policy. …