Genachowski Hits the Pause Button

Effort to loosen media ownership rules on hold

More than two months after Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski circulated an order proposing to lift the ban on owning a newspaper and radio station in a market, the commission is still deadlocked.

It’s not a surprise, really. No other proceeding gives an FCC chair more headaches—not to mention court challenges—than media ownership rules.

As it stands, Genachowski doesn’t have the decisive 4-1 or 5-0 vote he is seeking to avoid the possibility of more legal wrangling. Ironically, the FCC chairman is getting the most push back from his own party.

At the center of the firestorm is whether or not the FCC should go ahead with loosening ownership regulations without first completing an analysis of the impact on minority ownership as required by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2011. The FCC’s report showing that minority ownership remains disproportionately low didn’t cut it for many advocates, including Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn (who convinced the FCC to open up a comment period on the report) and Jessica Rosenworcel.

Advocacy groups and minority organizations, including Democratic lawmakers who have threatened a resolution of disapproval if the rules are loosened, also turned up the heat, putting pressure on the FCC to hold off on a vote until the study is conducted.

“All that has led to a difficult position for the chairman,” said one FCC staffer.

“No chairman likes dissent, but it’s hard to bridge the gap on this one,” said Andy Schwartzman, an advisor to Free Press. Genachowski “needs the two Democratic votes, [and] that’s the stumbling block.”

Working to break the logjam, the commission last week continued to meet with groups, including the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, Free Press, broadcasters and newspapers.

“There’s been a lot of back and forth. If there is a break, the chairman will make it go quickly,” added the FCC staffer.

But Genachowski, who is rumored to exit the commission sometime this year, could also just let it ride. “It’s a time-honored practice of FCC chairs—liberal, conservative, Republican, Democratic—to punt on difficult issues,” said Schwartzman. “If he’s facing a stalemate, maybe Genachowski will leave it for the next chairman.”

The whole media ownership issue, already two years behind schedule, breeds a lot of cynicism in Washington.

“There is no solution to this that doesn’t draw flak,” said Scott Flick, a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “You get the feeling people will be fighting over the ban until the very last newspaper shuts down.”

“No matter what happens, the FCC will be back in court,” Schwartzman predicted. “Anything the FCC does is going to be challenged by somebody, that’s a given.”