Senate Dems Blast FCC Draft to Relax Media Ownership Rules

Letters follow outcry from public interest groups

Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski is catching a lot of flak inside the Beltway for how he's handling a draft order of media ownership rules. Rather than holding a public meeting for a vote by all five commissioners, the draft, which proposes loosening the rules, is being handled behind closed doors in a process called "on circulation."

That's ruffled the feathers of not only the public interest groups, unions and civil rights organizations that oppose any weakening of the rules, but also a growing number of Democrats in Congress, who dashed off letters to Genachowski Thursday and today.

Not only do the senators dislike the lack of transparency in the circulation process, but they are also alarmed that the draft order (even though it is yet to be released) will lift the cross-ownership ban on radio and newspapers in all markets and TV and newspapers in the top 20 markets.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) wrote the first letter to Genachowski on Thursday. Nine other senators sent a second letter today.

"Congress tasked you with a mandate to promote localism and diversity in America’s broadcast system. While the current media ownership rules have not completely achieved these goals, they nonetheless remain a bulwark against mass consolidation and stand to preserve local voices," the senators wrote.

In the letters, the senators reminded Genachowski that the Senate passed a resolution of disapproval in 2008 when the FCC first proposed loosening the rules. Those rules ended up in court and were remanded back to the FCC. Now those rules, with a few twists, are being resurrected.

"The argument that weakening existing media ownership rules will save the newspaper industry just doesn't ring true," Cantwell wrote. "It will, though, diminish the diversity of local media ownership and consequently the diversity of local views, viewpoints and opinions."

The backlash from the Senate Dems follows a press conference held on Wednesday by Free Press and five other groups taking the FCC to task for failing to study the impact the changes in media ownership rules would have on diversity.

For Genachowski and the FCC, the media ownership rules are akin to the third rail. It's almost impossible to please every stakeholder, and more often than not, no matter what is proposed, some group will file suit, whether it's the broadcasters and newspapers who find the rules draconian in the age of digital media or liberal groups that worry about weaker rules leading to big media controlled by companies such as News Corp.

The FCC was not immediately available for comment. When asked during a press conference today if the media ownership order would be voted on by the end of the year, Genachowski would only say, "We are moving as fast as we can."