Once in a while, when politicians make a big show for the cameras of bipartisan cooperation, it actually leads to something positive. Last week, just such a rare spectacle did happen on the Senate floor, with 42 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting to push back on the Federal Communications Commission's loosening of media ownership rules.
Back in June, media industry cheerleader and FCC Commissioner Michael Powell ignored mounting public pressure and pushed for a vote that would allow big media companies to own even more radio and television stations, both nationally and in a given market. The old rules said a company could not own stations that reached more than 35 percent of the national audience; the new rules would raise that cap to a virtually meaningless 45 percent.
It may have seemed to Powell that the commission's vote would be enough to roll things along for his friends at Disney/ABC, Time Warner and Viacom. But the coalition of groups opposing the trend toward further media concentration just grew bigger. The list is almost comical in its diversity, representing everyone from far-left peace activists to conservative Christian "family values" groups to nearly every ethnic and working class organization you can think of. This breadth of interest managed to convince politicians of the political viability--even opportunity--of standing up to the Bush administration on this issue. The case pretty much makes itself: The monolithic voice of big business versus lots and lots of little guys.
While these groups were succeeding in Washington, those who stood to gain from the rule changes didn't make as eloquent a case when they appeared in front of congressional committees. Rupert Murdoch's insistence that he had no plans to exploit these rule changes and expand his News Corp./Fox empire drew audible laughs from committee members this summer.
And so senators have followed the lead of the House, which voted similarly last month by tacking a return to the old 35 percent ownership cap onto an appropriations bill. What's even more gratifying about the Senate vote is the fact that it involved a maneuver rarely used by Congress called a "resolution of disapproval," also known as a congressional veto. This is only the second time in history that the Senate has used its power to disapprove of a regulatory agency's action. Now is a good time to thank your friendly, neighborhood Republican: Our own Sen. Elizabeth Dole was one of the GOP members who voted against the FCC proposal -- hell, even Trent Lott is on the right side of this. (Our Democratic senator, alas, was too busy campaigning for president to vote last Tuesday.)
The good news is, something remarkable is happening in Washington thanks to a concerted, broad-based, grassroots effort. The bad news is that it will take much more momentum to make its effect real. Bush has promised to veto, and the 55-40 vote doesn't inspire strong confidence in a Senate override. If a congressional effort fails, the FCC rules could face a legal challenge. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeal has delayed implementation of the changes the commission voted for. But the National Association of Broadcasters, the industry's lobbying group, has an awful lot of lawyers.
So call John Edwards' office and tell him that even if he's not getting anymore senatorial business cards printed, you'd be grateful if he would show up to work when this thing bounces back. And find out how you can help your favorite organization lobby to thwart the media merger--whether you carry the card of the NAACP or the NRA, your favorite group is probably fighting this fight.