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Media Ownership Concerns Shoved Aside at FCC

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Cantwell voiced concern over newspaper publisher Gannett’s recent acquisition of Belo, a Dallas-based media company that owns 20 local TV stations across the country.

For the civil rights advocates that have been critical of the FCC’s inattention to issues concerning minorities, this was further evidence that diversity is no longer a priority. When stakeholders requested such a study, they were told by staff that the FCC lacked the resources.

The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a group that promotes diversity in telecom policy issues and had opposed any relaxation of media ownership rules, volunteered to perform and pay for the study. Genachowski agreed to defer any action on the 2010 quadrennial review until after the report was released.

That happened earlier this month, but the results were a surprise to many. Although the survey got only 14 responses from minority and/or female-owned broadcast stations the author, BIA chief economist Mark Fratrik, found them largely unconcerned about competition from cross-ownership operations, with the exception of three stations in one medium-sized market with considerable consolidation.

“With respect to the newspaper rule, there have been profoundly changed circumstances,” said MMTC President David Honig, citing the closing of some major daily newspapers and the loss of 20 percent to 30 percent of the nation’s journalists in recent years.

“It may be that the public interest in having the maximum number of diverse voices could be offset by keeping newspapers alive and kicking, by having TV companies able to invest in them and keep them alive and afloat,” he said.

Honig said the study is not conclusive in and of itself, but he called it a “piece of evidence” the FCC can use to successfully complete its quadrennial review. The commission put the report out for a public comment period, which expires Aug. 6. Staff will likely take some time to sift through the various responses and deliberate before any action is taken.

So far, the comments from other groups that seek increased media diversity have been mixed, with some groups taking direct aim at the MMTC for backing a position favored by much of the media industry.

Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said the reaction to the study has been overblown and that proponents of deregulation have used it to justify all forms of media consolidation.

“To conclude from basically the opinions of a handful of owners in a few markets that cross ownership is not a problem, is just a widely overbroad conclusion that the responses don’t support,” Wood said. “I still feel comfortable saying that all forms of concentration and ownership tend to hurt minority- and female-owned stations.”

FCC Action Unlikely

While the release of the report has negated the FCC’s official reason for delaying the 2010 quadrennial review, observers doubt any action is forthcoming.

Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn is a staunch advocate for minority and female media executives, having served in both those roles herself, but the political sensitivity of the issue could prevent her from moving forward.

The last two times the FCC has tried to relax the newspaper-broadcast rule, Congress moved quickly to express its disapproval.

If Clyburn does act before Wheeler’s confirmation, she is likely to move cautiously. Both Clyburn and Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel have expressed serious concerns about the paucity of minority ownership in the broadcast industry and are unlikely to approve anything perceived as harming media diversity.

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