Networks Pursue Republican Slant

Lobbyists Promote Free-Market Doctrine to Fend Off Ownership Limits

Posted August 29, 2003 at 5:26pm

The so-called liberal media is about to take a turn to the right.

Beginning this week, lobbyists for the four largest television networks will put on a decidedly Republican face in an effort to head off legislation that would reimpose tight restrictions on how many local television stations the networks may own.

Though ABC, NBC and CBS are often criticized for the left-wing bent of their content, their lobbyists plan to tell Members of Congress that the legislation amounts to unnecessary regulation that runs counter to the GOP’s reliance on the free market. Fox, which is considered more conservative, also is involved in the effort.

By appealing to conservatives’ deregulatory doctrine, the television networks hope to round up enough Republicans to uphold a threatened presidential veto of the legislation.

“We are trying to get to those Members who have been more willing to be honest on this issue, which — candidly — have been those on the Republican side,” said a lobbyist for one of the major networks.

So far, more than 100 House Members have signed a letter vowing to support President Bush if he vetoes a bill to block the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to ease ownership limits. Because overriding a veto requires a two-thirds majority, 146 Members are needed to uphold it.

In order to get to the magic number, network lobbyists hope to appeal to Republicans by portraying the issue as a partisan one.

Network lobbyists plan to point out that the leading backers of the ownership restrictions in the House and Senate are Democrats, such as Rep. David Obey (Wis.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.). They also will note that some of the funding for the effort comes from MoveOn.com, the left-leaning organization that has helped rally liberal support for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) presidential campaign.

“We believe that Democrats are looking for issues that they hope will resonate politically,” a network lobbyist said. “Within 10 minutes of the FCC’s decision, you had every Democratic presidential candidate saying that it was a part of the Republicans’ deregulatory agenda and that it was the end of democracy as we know it.”

The networks believe that Republicans have been more willing to support them. Indeed, Bush threatened to veto the ownership legislation, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has vowed to stop it as well.

Still, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation containing language that would block the rule changes — and the Senate is poised to follow suit.

To further appeal to Republicans, the networks will release a survey today conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz asserting that Americans support the FCC’s decision by a 2-1 ratio.

Americans “do not want Washington telling their favorite local station or their station owners whether or not they can or cannot be owned by a network,” Luntz writes in a five-page report that will be distributed today to Members of Congress. “Americans would rather Washington not pass laws to tell them what they can and can’t do.”

The poll, which was obtained by Roll Call, states that most Americans do not care about the media ownership rules — and have little idea about who owns their local television stations in the first place.

For instance, the local ABC affiliate, WJLA Channel 7, is owned by Allbritton Communications Co., not by ABC parent Disney. Likewise, the CBS affiliate, WUSA Channel 9, is owned by Gannett, not CBS’ Viacom.

Much of the report plays to the GOP’s free-market ideology.

In one section, Luntz asserts that 68 percent of Americans believe “the marketplace” should decide whether a network can own a local television station, compared with just 18 percent of respondents who chose “Washington regulators.”

“Americans simply do not want more Washington regulations on their airwaves and in their cable boxes and satellite dishes,” Luntz reported.

In reading the report, Republicans will likely find the author just as important as the content.

Luntz is a well-known Republican campaign operative who has the ear of the party. He was one of the first to predict that the GOP would take control of Congress in 1994, and he helped engineer the victory by working to elect several Republicans who remain in Congress today.

Said one network lobbyist: “He is very well-regarded by the people we are trying to appeal to.”