At his confirmation hearing last week, Tom Wheeler, President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Communications Commission, was grilled on everything from his ties to the telecom industry to his stance on crucial broadband policy issues such as net neutrality.
Media ownership, once considered the agency’s bread-and-butter topic, was a notable exception until Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., 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.
“So do you believe that making it easier for owners of daily newspapers to own television stations and radio stations in the same market will fix what is wrong with the newspaper industry? And is that the way we need to be going?” Cantwell asked.
“Senator, I understand the seriousness of this issue. And I have long been an advocate of diversity of voices,” Wheeler responded. “But I think you said the key thing: that when the commission looks at these issues — competition, localism and diversity are the issues that should be the touchstones. Not business plans.”
Wheeler’s opinion matters because the agency is again reviewing its rules restricting media ownership in local markets. Those rules were put in place to prevent one company from dominating local news by limiting how many broadcast stations one company may own and banning a single entity from owning both a daily newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market.
For years the broadcast and newspaper industries have lobbied the FCC to relax or eliminate the newspaper-broadcast rules, arguing they are no longer relevant in today’s marketplace where newspapers are struggling financially and allowing more cross-ownership may help them survive. Gannett President and CEO Gracia Martore noted that her company’s acquisition of Belo “will significantly improve our cash flow and financial strength.”
Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski floated a plan to relax cross-ownership only in the largest media markets earlier this year, but the prospect of fierce opposition from Congress and civil rights groups who want more diversity means any action to relax the media ownership rules is unlikely until the winter, if at all.
Similar proposals under the two previous FCC chairmen were rejected by the courts, which said while the FCC had done studies to examine the effect of the rules on localism and competition, it had failed to evaluate the effect on diversity of viewpoints or minority ownership.