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Would the public be well served if one company could own a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in one market? Should the current Federal Communications Commission regulations against cross ownership be changed to allow that, since current technology allows "broadcasting" through cable, satellites and the Web in addition to the limited airways?

"The answer to that may well be that we do still care, that even in this age of the Internet, some media actors have louder voices than others," says Jonathan Weinberg, a Wayne State University professor of law. "There's still reason to pay attention to and be concerned about media concentration issues."

Weinberg's discussion with News Hits was more than academic.

What's happening inside the Beltway could allow media companies like Gannett Inc., the owner of the Detroit Free Press, for instance, to purchase television or radio stations here and limit the viewpoints readers and viewers have.

Here's what's gone on:

The Republican members of the Federal Communications Commission want to rewrite media ownership rules that would allow companies to own newspapers and broadcast outlets in the country's top 20 markets. That includes Detroit.

The existing restriction harks back to the early days of broadcasting, when the airwaves literally were limited by technology. Only certain frequencies were available for transmitting news and entertainment programming, and anti-monopolistic regulations were enacted. In 1975 commission regulations prevented owners from having both newspapers and TV or radio stations in one place: the "marketplace of ideas" could be best served by diversity, was the thinking.

But with today's technology, some consider the argument against limits weakened when access to stations (not to mention Web sites) is so much greater.

Hence the push by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Bush Junior appointee, to ease the restrictions. But while Martin plans an FCC vote on Dec. 18 on the ownership rules, the Senate Commerce Committee has voted to block the plan for at least six months.

Meanwhile, the two Democratic members of the five-member commission — by law the commission can't have more than three members from a single political party — are fighting hard to keep the rules as they are. They're getting some help from a couple of Michigan Congressman.

John Dingell (D-Dearborn) has taken aim at Martin, specifically at his management style. Dingell has publicly complained about the FCC having closed negotiations on matters of public interest, a lack of time for public review and failure to publish proposed rules in advance of FCC meetings.

Martin last week faced questions from Dingell and members of a House subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

And Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) who heads the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, has publicly wondered whether Martin is abusing his power as chair.

Meanwhile, Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), also on the House panel, supports easing the ownership restrictions.

Weinberg says the cross-ownership argument is also framed by interpretations of the First Amendment. To limit "speech,"where speech means ownership, is contrary to our country's guiding principle, on one hand. But on the other?

"Folks say, 'Well, the First Amendment ultimately is trying to protect having a well-functioning marketplace of ideas. And we don't have a well-functioning marketplace of ideas if a few entities own all of the media outlets," Weinberg says. "There's a real clash of vision between those two arguments that can be pretty hard to reconcile."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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