Ownership Ban Tops DC Agenda

By: Todd Shields

The new year promises brisk activity for newspapers in Washington, as they parry measures that could bring prosecutors into newsrooms and result in higher postage rates.

But before they line up on defense, newspapers will press an offensive, trying to eliminate the 27-year-old regulation that keeps newspapers out of the TV business. Opposition in Congress and elsewhere, however, may force them to settle for a relaxation of — not an end to — the rule that bars common ownership of a daily and a broadcast station in the same market.

This years-long debate starts 2002 with the rulemaking Federal Communications Commission (FCC) extending by six weeks, to Feb. 15, the deadline for receiving written arguments. Nonprofit organizations said their small legal teams need time to sift some 1,800 pages of arguments filed by big newspaper and TV companies thirsty for the added profits expected to follow the ban’s demise.

One defender of the rule predicted the debate would leave abolitionists without grounds to eliminate it — and defenders needing to give ground. “I think, pragmatically, we will be looking at options to modify the rule,” said Cheryl A. Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, a Washington-based public-interest law firm.

At the Newspaper Association of America, CEO and President John F. Sturm disagreed with that take. “The commission will have an overwhelming record on which to repeal this rule,” Sturm said.

At some point, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., who opposes media concentration, is likely to weigh in. In the mid-1990s, with Democrats controlling Washington, Hollings kept the FCC from reviewing cross ownership. It is unclear whether he can be so successful an obstructionist with Republicans in power. But as chairman of the Commerce Committee, he is still a powerful influence upon the agency.

By the time the FCC acts — most likely at midyear — Washington may have moved on other fronts, including anti-leaking legislation, classified advertising piracy, postal reform, and the estate tax. Regarding the estate tax, newspapers back a proposal to make permanent the repeal that was voted into law last year, but which will expire in 2011.

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