Media C-SPAN is rarely as exciting as it was last week. On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, nearly a dozen lawmakers stood up to voice passionate support for a movement in Congress to override the Federal Communications Commission's decision earlier this year to further deregulate the media industry.
It was a show of political force that seemed like a long shot six months ago, when commissioners cast their votes, 3-2, in spite of a groundswell of national protest. Congressman David Price (D-Chapel Hill) has been at the forefront of the move in Washington to fight the agency's decision. He says that, in fact, political momentum behind the issue has grown since the commissioners' controversial vote.
"It's not dead at all," Price said.
On July 22, the House passed an appropriations bill that included a measure to prevent a change in the rules governing television ownership. The FCC had decided to allow individual companies to own television stations that reach as much as 45 percent of the national audience. The House voted to keep the limit at 35 percent in order to prevent a duopoly. The bill passed 400 to 21. The Senate has already expressed clear support for the 35 percent cap; it was in the House where that issue faced its greatest challenge.
Speaking on the chamber floor earlier that day, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) warned his colleagues that if they didn't vote to override the FCC decision, constituents would show up "with torches and pitchforks." Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) called the FCC decision "the greatest usurpation of the public interest in the history of regulation" in this country. He took the opportunity to bash FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of Colin) as someone who doesn't believe in the idea of "public interest" in the first place. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) joined in the condemnation, pointing out the deleterious effect that media consolidation is having on minority-owned and -operated media outlets. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a longtime watchdog over media consolidation and an architect of the original 35-percent cap, summed up by saying January's vote was "the single worst decision ever made by the Federal Communications Commission."
If things go as expected in the Senate, it looks like the 35 percent cap will stay in place. But Price tried to take things further. He and New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey offered an amendment to suspend two remaining rules that the FCC weakened when it voted to deregulate media ownership: the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule (which had prohibited any company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city) and the local TV ownership rule (which applied the 35 percent ownership cap to local markets).
Most of the arguing on the House floor was about that bill. And in fact, not all of those quoted above voted in favor of the Hinchey-Price bill. Speaking from his office in Washington, Price explained that the disagreement was over tactics, not substance. Ranking Democrats thought the amendment was too radical and Congressional efforts to preserve the rules would be more effective if they concentrated on one objective.
"I didn't accept that," Price said. "That's why I persisted with the amendment even when they tried to get us to pull it off the floor. I thought we should push for as much of a rollback as we could achieve. Why not? The president is not going to like any of this. So what?"
President Bush has said he will veto any bill that attempts to roll back the FCC vote. It's unclear if he has enough votes to hold off an override.
Despite the defeat of his amendment, Price described the vote as a success. "One thing I was concerned about, knowing the forces we were up against, was that we make a strong enough showing that we not discourage the Senate from taking up some of this themselves, and I think we passed that test with flying colors." Price says his Senate allies on the issue told him "it strengthens their hand."
Price is especially excited by the unusual political alliance that is shaping up in support of this movement. "There's an interesting left-right convergence here. The Christian Coalition and the NRA are our allies on this," he said. He pointed out that 34 of those who voted for the Hinchey-Price amendment were Republicans. Conservatives are worried about the degradation of moral values in the media, and the lack of local ownership means less ability to make programming decisions based on community standards.
Last winter, as the FCC was preparing to vote, Powell agreed to only one official public hearing on the issue, which took place in Virginia--one small step outside the Washington Beltway. It was up to concerned lawmakers and the two opposing FCC commissioners to put together a few unofficial public hearings on the topic.
Duke Law School hosted one such hearing, which brought Price, his conservative counterpart U.S. Rep. Richard Burr (R-Winston-Salem), along with local media magnates Jim Goodmon, owner of WRAL, and Jim Heavner, owner of WCHL radio.
Since that hearing, Goodmon (a political conservative) has made several trips to Washington to lobby Congress. "He has been out in force behind the national effort," Price said of the Capitol Broadcasting Company owner.
If the momentum keeps building, could this turn out to be a presidential campaign issue? Price is hopeful. "I think this is one of many areas where the administration has acted in disregard of public opinion and has stormed ahead with an arrogance of power," he said.
"I think they're operating in defiance of the vast majority of the public, and I think that kind of arrogance catches up with an administration eventually. So yeah, this could be an issue that does them some real damage."