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Focus of Media Debate Turns to Congress

Times Staff Writer

For months, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps waged a lonely campaign to keep the nation’s biggest media companies from getting even bigger.

Short on funds, the Democrat crisscrossed the country, often unaccompanied by colleagues or staff, and begged universities to give him facilities to hold town meetings to debate media ownership policy. The FCC’s Republican chairman, Michael K. Powell, had stopped participating in the events, dismissing them as a “19th century whistle-stop tour.” Publicity remained scant.

Over time, however, Copps’ message began to resonate -- and with folks far beyond the usual consumer advocates who had long warned of the dangers of media consolidation.

Copps’ crusade, for instance, caught the ear of the National Rifle Assn. and the Parents Television Council, a group fighting “to restore family-friendly” programming. It also helped galvanize small, independent TV broadcasters, which feared they might buckle if much larger competitors were free to purchase even more stations.

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By the fourth town hall meeting on March 31 -- a forum in Durham, N.C., attended by country singer Tift Merritt, Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), Rep. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) and FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein -- Copps had forged an unlikely liberal-conservative coalition.

Still, there was a problem: Powell had already put together the votes to pass his agenda for relaxing media ownership rules. So, the strange-bedfellows alliance turned away from the agency and focused its attention elsewhere: If they couldn’t stop the deregulation train from leaving the FCC, they might be able to derail it farther down the tracks, in the halls of Congress.

Last week, their strategy paid off.

The House passed a measure that would keep TV broadcasters from owning stations that reached more than 35% of the nation, rolling back the new 45% cap just approved by the FCC. The matter is set to be taken up next on the floor of the Senate, where momentum also is building to dismantle at least some of the FCC’s handiwork.

Of course, it remains far from certain whether the FCC’s June 2 relaxation of long-standing media ownership rules will ultimately be undone -- especially given strong support for the commission from a deregulation-minded White House. Administration officials have recommended that President Bush veto any bill that reverses the FCC’s rule-loosening plans.

Yet the sudden burst of political energy has already made a genuine cause out of issues that, not long ago, seemed too arcane for the general public to care much about.

“I think the sentiment was there all along in Congress and across the country,” Copps said. “People just weren’t paying much attention to it.”

Lawmakers had no choice but to start paying attention after Copps’ coalition fueled a deluge of e-mails, faxes and telephone calls -- tens of thousands of messages -- from consumers who opposed the FCC’s stance.

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A woman from Winston-Salem, N.C., for instance, told Burr that “we want a media that is diverse, competitive and engaged with the local concerns of the community where we live. I support any effort to undo the FCC rules.”

In a handwritten note, an elderly Statesville, N.C., man asserted: “I worry we are moving toward a national media machine run by remote control.” The man added that his concern over excessive media consolidation eclipsed even his concern about national security in the wake of Sept. 11.

“I am scared, not of terrorists,” the man wrote, but of “big brother around the corner.”

Over the weeks, the public outcry became so widespread that it generated the kind of media coverage that Copps had yearned for -- but found largely elusive before the FCC acted. One woman who wrote to Burr included a newspaper article on the debate, underlining passages that she said echoed her sentiment that media conglomerates should be constrained.

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The media ownership battle represents one of the rare public uprisings over a matter that doesn’t involve a pocketbook issue such as taxes or cable TV rates. Conservatives and liberals alike have found common ground in attacking media giants such as Viacom Inc. and News Corp., branding the firms as remote, uncaring and greedy.

“My sense,” said Gene Kimmelman, director of the Washington office of Consumers Union, “is that what people didn’t realize is that there is a fundamental public belief in this country that the media is biased and unfair and can’t be trusted.”

Some also suggest that the outrage has stemmed from a feeling among consumers that they were being marginalized by Washington policymakers eager to overhaul media ownership rules without their input.

“I’m proud ... to hold this important public hearing to solicit the views of North Carolinians on media ownership,” Burr told the overflow audience in Durham in a pointed rebuke of Powell’s decision to abandon the town hall sessions. “Today’s hearing and the others in the various states provide a welcome change from the predictable lineup of Washington insiders who traditionally dominate these discussions.”

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To be sure, the pursuit of profits -- as much as populism -- has motivated some to take on the FCC.

Jim Goodmon, president of Raleigh, N.C.-based Capitol Broadcasting Co., fearful that his small company might be among those gobbled up by the media giants if something wasn’t done, flew to Washington in early spring to corral legislators.

“We have to do something,” Goodmon told Burr, not long before the town hall meeting in Durham.

“I’ll put a bill in, Jim,” Burr replied. But the congressman also cautioned that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) -- a key supporter of FCC Chairman Powell -- was going to try to stop it dead.

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“I’m going to need your support,” Burr told Goodmon.

In the end, Burr and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) would introduce a bill to keep the national TV cap at 35% -- and Tauzin would be left scrambling.

Meanwhile, Kimmelman of Consumers Union also worked the Hill. At one point, he told the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, John McCain (R-Ariz.), about a survey he had conducted: It concluded that newspapers owned by companies with TV properties uniformly took editorial positions supporting their broadcast interests, while newspapers with no or limited broadcast affiliations expressed more independent views.

Kimmelman recalled that McCain appeared troubled by the findings and promised “to look more carefully at this issue.”

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The senator’s response was swift. In a May hearing a few weeks after his chat with Kimmelman, McCain grilled the chief executive of Denver-based MediaNews Group about whether it was just a coincidence that independent newspapers and those owned by conglomerates with broadcasting arms had diametrically opposed views on broadcast issues.

William Dean Singleton, chief executive of the company, responded that publishers don’t dictate the editorial stands of newspapers. McCain seemed incredulous of the response.

After the exchange, McCain -- a longtime ally of FCC Chairman Powell -- made no attempt to protect the media ownership policy of his fellow Republican. Instead, McCain said he would not stand in the way of efforts by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and others to overturn what the FCC had prescribed.


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