Senate Votes to Nullify Media Ownership 'Loophole'

The Senate Thursday night voted to nullify a Federal Communications Commission rule that allows media companies to own a newspaper and a television station in the same market.

The unusual "resolution of disapproval," sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and 26 other senators, was approved by a voice vote. The measures sponsors include both Democratic candidates for president, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has described the agency's action as a "relatively minor loosening" of broadcast media ownership restrictions. The rule was approved by the FCC on a 3-2 party-line vote in December with both Democrats dissenting.

The FCC decision allows one company to own a newspaper and a broadcast station in the nation's 20 largest metropolitan areas. The TV station may not be among the top four in the market, and post-transaction, at least eight independent media voices must remain. The rule replaced an outright ban on cross-ownership.

Dorgan said the FCC action opened a "gaping loophole for more mergers of newspapers and television stations across the country."

Martin has said any exception to the media ownership rule would face a "very high hurdle."

The House is also considering a nullification of the ownership rule, but even if supporters are successful, the measure would likely be rejected by President Bush.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said he was "disappointed with the Senate's action" and would recommend to the president that he veto the bill.

"The FCC's approach modernizes a 30-year-old rule in a way that improves the financial viability of the newspaper industry, which faces an increasingly competitive media market," he said.

The FCC's media ownership decision has been met with opposition on both sides. The newspaper industry has complained that the FCC did not go far enough, while activists who want to keep big media companies from getting bigger said the agency went too far.

Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii opposed the FCC's action.

"In recent years, we have seen an increase in coarse and violent programming, coupled with a decrease in local news and hard-hitting journalism," Inouye said Thursday night. "To say these trends are not in the best interest of the American people, and especially our youngest citizens, is clearly an understatement."

Obama issued a statement supporting the vote.

"Today the Senate stood up to Washington special interests by voting to reverse the FCC's disappointing media consolidation rules that I have fought against," he said. "Our nation's media market must reflect the diverse voices of our population, and it is essential that the FCC promotes the public interest and diversity in ownership."