Friday, November 30, 2007

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin Looks to Give a Free Pass on Tribune Sale

The AP reported yesterday that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has circulated a plan to grant Tribune a waiver that would allow it to own both a newspaper and broadcast property in the same market. The company is the subject of an $8.2 billion buyout deal to take it private.

Martin's plan would allow Tribune to operate both types of properties in a market while the FCC considers lifting a ban on cross-ownership for the top 20 markets in the U.S. According to the AP, the waivers will last six months after any potential litigation is concluded, or two years, whichever is later.

Tribune already owns both a newspaper and broadcast station in five markets, including New York City, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Hartford, Conn, which violates the current rule against cross-ownership. As stated in the AP article, the company has operated in other markets under temporary waivers "in anticipation that the FCC would lift the ban."

It is mind-blowing to me that a federal agency can so blatantly disregard its duties to the public. Here we have the FCC providing get-out-of-jail-free cards to businesses, which allow them to break the law "in anticipation" of the law changing. The Commissioner has the audacity to say that, "We should give people an opportunity to see how that all shakes out," adding, "I would anticipate that would take quite some time."

I didn't sleep a whole lot last night and perhaps a I'm bit loopy but, shouldn't the idea be that the FCC continue enforcing the rules as they are today and only allow cross-ownership once it all "shakes out?" Wouldn't Martin's prediction that it could take a long time to settle the issue make it even more important to stay in-step with the law?

The logic supporting the new waiver should be the very reason why the waiver should not be allowed. Martin says that it wouldn't be fair to force The Tribune to divest itself of properties in order to come into compliance with the law while the FCC considers the a final rule (which would open up cross-ownership in the top 20 markets, and 4 of the 5 Tribune cross-controlled markets would qualify). However, Tribune is only allowed to own those properties today because of waivers granted in anticipation of the FCC lifting the ban. If the FCC hadn't granted the first waivers then it wouldn't feel compelled to grant these new waivers. What about the fairness to the public, the people to whom the FCC is supposed to answer? Was it fair to us to deprive us of a protection that the law says we should have? If the FCC had not allowed Tribune to break the rules before, it would have even less justification for doing so now.

Even if the ban is never lifted, Tribune and other major media conglomerates will have enjoyed years of profits by breaking the law with the blessing of the FCC. More importantly, however, the public good will have been sacrificed by reducing the number of voices providing it with news and information, something that the public has already overwhelmingly disapproved.

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