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Fight Brews at FCC on Media Merger Rules

Times Staff Writer

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell on Thursday brushed aside calls that he slow down the agency’s review of media ownership rules, and said he would ask for a vote on proposed reforms by June 2.

But as the political dance over the controversial issue gets into full swing at the FCC, some commissioners are complaining that Powell is withholding key details about potential rule changes and playing favorites by giving some commissioners more information than others.

The budding disharmony raises the specter that Powell could face another bureaucratic dogfight similar to the high-profile FCC battle Powell waged -- and then lost -- over telephone deregulation.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, the most outspoken opponent of efforts to relax media ownership rules, complained that he has yet to see drafts concerning a proposed mathematical formula to measure the diversity of media voices in a local market, even though Powell staffers have discussed the idea publicly and are testing it in different media markets.

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“I hope it’s not dropped on us at the last minute,” Copps said.

In addition, there is growing anxiety that Powell and FCC Media Bureau Chief W. Kenneth Ferree will wait too long before releasing their final recommendations, not giving other commissioners enough time to review them before the vote.

That was a key complaint in the February battle between Powell and fellow Republican Kevin S. Martin, who ultimately joined the agency’s two Democrats to defeat Powell’s telephone deregulation agenda.

In a speech Thursday in Washington before the Media Institute, a 1st Amendment advocacy group, Powell stressed that he wanted to prevent the media ownership review from turning into another “power struggle” between commissioners.

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FCC officials said the bureau is working to make final decisions and keep commissioners informed, but that proposals -- including a new mathematical-based diversity index -- still are evolving. The officials denied that there are efforts to withhold details from commissioners, but said briefings may vary depending upon when they occur and how often commissioners have time to meet. “It’s still very fluid,” one official said.

Among other things, media ownership rules prevent cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market, and prohibit a single company from owning TV stations that reach more than 35% of the nation. (Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5, is lobbying to kill the newspaper-TV rule.)

As the vote nears, tensions are rising inside the FCC.

In their separate public appearances Thursday, Powell and Copps traded barbs over the issue. In a news briefing, Copps -- who worries that media consolidation will give too much power to a handful of entertainment conglomerates -- chastised Powell and others for “sitting around,” waiting for outside parties to supply comments on the rules. Copps said they should join him at a series of public hearings he is conducting around the country.

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Powell, at the Media Institute forum, called his critics “noisemakers” who are using the “usual alarmist political attacks designed just to prevent change.”

In addition, Powell and Martin are privately sparring over how far to go in relaxing the newspaper-TV rule. Though both favor lifting the rule, Powell wants to include newspaper outlets under a new diversity index, while Martin is pushing for broader deregulation for newspapers, sources said.

The proposal for the diversity index also is beginning to raise concerns with both consumer advocates and industry groups, who are nervous about how such a new rule would be applied.

Three Republican senators this month urged Powell to disclose any proposed rule changes before formally adopting them so that consumers and lawmakers can have time to review them. But Powell signaled Thursday that he is not inclined to do so.

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“He has really dug in his heels on this,” said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of Consumers Union.


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