Case joins fight to undo FCC changes

Hawai`i Rep. Ed Case is part of a bipartisan campaign in Congress to reverse last week’s controversial decision by the Federal Communications Commission to remove longstanding restrictions on media ownership. Case is a cosponsor of H.R. 2052 and H.R. 2212, two bills among many in both the House and Senate directed at the FCC. The first bill would revise the Communications Act of 1934, and the second would force the FCC to comply with the act’s original mandate “favoring diversity of media voices.”

“I am extremely disappointed in the FCC’s recent ruling,” Case said in a letter mailed today to constituents who contacted him about the issue. “Current media ownership is already too consolidated, resulting in fewer independent voices and less news coverage devoted to local issues, especially in our newspapers.”

At its June 2 meeting, the FCC leadership voted along party lines — its three Republican members overriding vigorous opposition by the two Democrats — to allow companies to own more media outlets in a given market and to allow cross-ownership, which would let a newspaper company buy a TV station, for example.

Honolulu is one of the media battlegrounds likely to be affected by the rule change. Already, only two major media conglomerates — Texas-based Clear Channel Communications and Atlanta-based Cox Radio — own or have a stake in most of Honolulu’s FM radio stations.

In addition, Emmis Communications Corp. has an exemption to FCC rules that would otherwise prevent its joint ownership of both KHON and KGMB, Hawaii’s top-ranked Fox and CBS affiliates, respectively. The Honolulu Community Media Council as well as the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists opposed the exemptions.

While the FCC’s decision last week wouldn’t remove the rule in Emmis’ case outright, it does set up a case-by-case review process that could permanently allow the joint ownership.

Meanwhile, with the cross-ownership rules relaxed, some have speculated that newspaper giant Gannett — which owns the Honolulu Advertiser — might now be able to save Emmis the trouble of another FCC review by buying KGMB.

Gannett owns at least 22 televisions nationwide, in addition to about 100 daily newspapers (including USA Today), but up until now, it couldn’t have one of each in the same city. There have been exemptions elsewhere, however: In Tampa, Fla., NBC affiliate WFLA and the Tampa Tribune newspaper are owned by the same company.

Case said the loosening of the rules to allow more such arrangements is a step in the wrong direction.

“Independent ownership of media outlets ensures more diverse media voices, greater competition among owners, and the production of more local and specialized programming,” he wrote.

In the wake of the FCC’s vote, both Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress have launched a multifaceted effort to stop the new FCC rules from taking effect, be it through the regulations that govern the FCC or through withholding funding for the FCC’s initiatives.

On the House side, H.R. 2054 has 124 cosponsors, including including Rep. Case and Rep. Neil Abercrombie. H.R. 2212 has 19 cosponsors. Both were introduced last month and are currently before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

“Both bills would overturn the FCC’s decision and set strict limits on the consolidation of media outlets,” Case explained.

The issue is even more contentious on the Senate side. The Senate Commerce Committee will meet next Thursday to consider turning the previous FCC restrictions into federal law. But senators are also considering use of the 1996 Congressional Review Act, an obscure legislative procedure to force a bill to the floor of both houses, avoiding amendments, fillibusters, and the quagmire of subcommittees.

Case has also signed a joint congressional letter (PDF) to FCC chairman Michael Powell, which in part asks the FCC to publicly justify how any changes in media rules will promote diversity, competition, and localism before moving forward with final rulemaking.

“The current media landscape is already concentrated,” the letter reads in part, reviewing the state of media ownership in television stations, radio stations, and newspapers. “Greater consolidation in radio and other media outlets could further undermine every person’s access to the independent, local media that provide them with news and information important to their lives and communities.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye earlier cosigned a letter from Senate leaders to Powell that raised similar concerns. It was sent on April 9, in advance of the FCC vote.

Hawaii’s other congressional representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

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