FCC Chairman Kevin Martin believes that loosening restrictions on media ownership will "help forestall the erosion in local news coverage."  (Source: UNC)
Dying newspapers need all the help they can get, says the FCC

Consumer groups and the United States Senate is up in arms over the FCC’s recent vote to relax its rules on media ownership, which currently prohibit ownership of both print and broadcast news sources in the same market.

The vote occurred on Tuesday of last week, with a 3-2 split reportedly “along party lines.”

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said the vote represented a “relatively minimal loosening of the band” that he thinks will “help forestall the erosion in local news coverage.” The new rules would allow simultaneous ownership of print and broadcast news outlets in the same top 20 market, which critics fear could spark a wave of media mergers that would leave fewer choices for consumers.

“The public has repeatedly told us they are not interested in further media consolidation,” said Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “The law does not say we are to serve those who seek to profit by using the public airwaves … the law says we are to serve the public interest.”

In an interview earlier this week with the Associated Press, Martin told reporters that “this was actually a very moderate attempt to adjust our rules to reflect some of the changes that are occurring in the marketplace.”

The FCC initially voted on loosening the rules on media ownership in 2003, with the vote succeeding only to be later nullified by a federal appeals court in 2004. Like last week’s decision, the 2003 vote sparked a fierce bipartisan backlash that was fought vigorously by congress and consumer rights groups.

Of particular concern is a series of loopholes that would grant similar privileges to markets outside the “top 20 markets” list, if media consolidation created additional local news sources or it bails out a news source experiencing financial distress, among other exemptions.

The day before the vote, Martin received a letter from a group of 25 senators warning him that they would “move legislation to revote the rule and nullify the vote” if the FCC elected to go ahead with the ownership rule changes, which have been brewing in various forms for several years.

According to the group, which includes Democratic Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Republican Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens of Alaska, the FCC had not spent enough time seeking public input and examining the issue.

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