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FCC approves controversial media ownership rule

    WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission, overturning a 32-year-old ban, voted Tuesday to allow broadcasters in the nation’s 20 largest media markets to also own a newspaper.
    FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was joined by his two Republican colleagues in favor of the proposal, while the commission’s two Democrats voted against it.
    Martin pushed the vote through despite intense pressure from House and Senate members on Capitol Hill to delay it. The chairman, however, has the support of the White House, which has pledged to turn back any congressional action that seeks to undo the agency vote.
    At Tuesday’s meeting, the chairman described the media ownership proceeding as ‘‘the most contentious and divisive issue’’ to come before him.
    That proved true as the two Democrats in the commission blasted the proposal in unusually strong language for the normally sedate agency.
    Martin, noting the steady decline in revenue for newspapers, said his proposal ‘‘strikes a balance’’ between the changing media marketplace and the need to protect diversity and competition.
    The Democrats blasted the chairman for making changes to the proposal ‘‘in the dead of night’’ and just before the meeting that created new ownership loopholes instead of closing them, as he pledged during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.
    ‘‘Anybody who thinks our processes are open, thoughtful or deliberative should think twice in light of these nocturnal escapades,’’ said Democrat Jonathan Adelstein.
    The Democrat said Martin’s proposal ‘‘will allow for waivers for six new newspaper-broadcast combinations and 36 grandfathered stations.’’
    Copps described the commission’s action as a ‘‘terrible decision.’’
    ‘‘In the final analysis, the real winners today are businesses that are in many cases quite healthy, and the real losers are going to be all of us who depend on the news media to learn what’s happening in our communities and to keep an eye on local government,’’ he said.
    Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate described the process as ‘‘transparent and thorough.’’ She said the changes proposed are narrow, and hinted she was in favor of a greater liberalization of the media ownership rules.
    Fellow Republican Commission Robert McDowell also defended the proposal noted the explosion of new media in the modern marketplace and denied the proposal was ‘‘pockmarked with loopholes’’ as claimed by the Democrats.
    Martin, addressing the comment about the new markets, said the great majority were existing combinations that predated the 1975 ownership ban. The others are apparently for stations that are operating under existing waivers.
    The cross-ownership ban was approved by the FCC in 1975 to serve ‘‘the twin goals of diversity of viewpoints and economic competition.’’ The FCC at the time noted that ‘‘it is unrealistic to expect true diversity from a commonly owned station-newspaper combination.’’
    Opponents of the ban say in the past decade there has been an explosion of news outlets thanks to cable television and the Internet and that such restrictions are no longer necessary. Ban supporters say there may be additional outlets, but there has been no corresponding increase in news gatherers and producers, especially at the local level.
    On Monday, 25 senators, including four Republicans, sent Martin a letter threatening that if he goes ahead with the vote, they will move legislation to revoke the rule and nullify the commission’s action.
    But a letter that surfaced late Monday makes it clear the chairman has the full support of the White House. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Dec. 4 opposing a Senate bill that would have delayed the vote, ‘‘or any other attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means.’’
    The agency first tried to loosen the ban in 2003, but the move was rejected by a federal appeals court. Since then, the commissioners have been trying to craft a new set of rules that will survive judicial scrutiny.
    Under Martin’s proposal, one entity would be permitted to own a newspaper and one broadcast station in the same market.
    But it must be among the 20 largest in the nation and following the transaction, at least eight independently owned-and-operated media voices must remain. In addition, the television station may not be among the top four in the market.

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