As the president touts an emerging democracy in Iraq--one made up of leaders hand-picked by the American government rather than chosen by Iraqi votes--the Bush administration is celebrating another tweak to democratic process. A media ownership provision in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in late November was revised by the president, thanks to a handshake deal made after the bill had reached the Oval Office.
Congress had stood up to the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission by addressing one of the most significant changes to media ownership restrictions. In June, the FCC voted to allow the cap on national television audience share per conglomerate to expand from 35 percent to 45 percent. With the omnibus provision, Congress pushed the cap back down to 35. Bush had threatened to veto the bill (which is also laden with massive pork projects), but by the time it reached his desk, political pressure had mounted so much, he couldn't take the chance. That's how successful the grassroots activist campaign against the FCC rule changes has been.
Instead, the president did something less politically risky and more direct: He came up with a "compromise" that would set the national audience cap at 39 percent--presto! A daring political act, to override the entire legislative system, and yet such a reasonable word to describe it.
So what did this "compromise" entail, and what will it mean? U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Chapel Hill), an outspoken critic of the FCC rule changes and sponsor of the omnibus provision, explained what happened in a recent interview with The Independent. Price has been pushing for aggressive legislative action in the form of a resolution of disapproval (also known as a congressional veto) of all of the FCC rule changes.
The Independent: When the White House announced this 'compromise,' the bill had already passed and was awaiting either the president's signature or a veto . What happened?
Price: If compromise means Republican leaders and White House operatives getting together, then I guess this is a compromise. It was simply caving in to the White House and greatly reducing the effectiveness of this provision.
There are two media owners that would already be in violation of a 35 percent cap, News Corp, which reaches 37.8 percent of the national audience, and Viacom, which reaches 38.8 percent.
This accommodates them. That's probably most immediately what this was about, is accommodating those companies who are already in violation of the law, and of course it allows the other two to own more stations.
In that case, does 39 percent versus 45 percent make any real difference?
Yes, it makes a difference in a couple of respects. First of all, 39 percent of the national audience is considerably less. Secondly, it still counts ass a rebuke to the Republican majority on the FCC and to the White House. This rebuke is based, I think, on a very intense public reaction that came from across the political spectrum, all the way from the NRA and religious conservatives to people who don't think the Dixie Chicks should be banned from the radio.
We sensed this reaction at the hearing we had in Durham [in March]. MoveOn.org got thousands of people to contact Congress. The issue struck a chord. The fact that this is in the bill at all is evidence of a very successful grassroots effort.
But to me, this is a bitter disappointment that the White House in the end was able to reduce the effectiveness of this provision. It's also a bitter disappointment that the additional aspects of the FCC rule changes, the local concentration rule and the newspaper-TV cross-media ownership rule--those are the rule changes I was trying to block in my amendment on the floor, that actually passed in the Senate, but the House leadership won't let us vote on it--that those didn't make it into this provision. What you have is a provision that reaches one of the three major rule changes, and even that has now been compromised.
How do you see this issue evolving as we enter the 2004 election cycle?
That's a good question. I don't think it's going to die; people are angry about this. There are people of all political stripes angry about it. This is an issue that candidates can talk about.
And also, this last minute deal that Republicans pulled off, that itself has a bad odor. We won fair and square, after all. This 35 percent cap was in the House bill and the Senate bill. Fritz Hollings, the key Democrat in this area in the Senate, he says, 'What compromise? We had nothing to do with this.' This was another one of those closed-door Republican deals.
This whole issue of Republican high-handedness is going to be an issue. This is a good example of the arrogance of power.
You mentioned the grassroots effort. How can people direct their energies toward lobbying their congressional representatives on this issue now?
There are a couple of things still in play, which is the resolution of disapproval, which did pass the Senate. The House Republican leadership has refused to let us vote on it. So I would hope that MoveOn.org and all these coalition groups would keep up the pressure.
There's always a new appropriations bill next year to keep the block in place. We can do that next year if we have to. That's kind of a fall back strategy. We would all prefer a law that kills this thing.