Court lifts ban on media ownership restrictions


By JOELLE TESSLER (AP)

WASHINGTON — A federal court has at least temporarily lifted government rules that blocked media companies from owning a newspaper and a broadcast TV station in the same market.

The decision Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit lifts the Federal Communications Commission’s “cross-ownership” ban.

That restriction had remained in effect under a stay issued by the court in 2003 as it has tried to sort out legal challenges to attempts by two previous FCC chairmen, Republicans Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, to relax the rules.

The decision comes as the current FCC, now under Democratic control, gears up for its next congressionally mandated review of its media ownership rules. Those rules, which the agency must review every four years, include the cross-ownership ban and limits on the number of television and radio stations that one company can own in a market.

In the meantime, some media companies already own newspapers and television stations in the same market because they were grandfathered in when the rules were first put into place in 1974.

The current court case began when Powell tried to lift the cross-ownership ban in large media markets and raise the caps on TV and radio station ownership. That effort drew legal challenges from public interest groups that said he had gone too far and from media companies that said he had not gone far enough.

The Third Circuit sent the matter back to FCC, telling it to rewrite the rules. And that led Powell’s successor, Martin, to try to ease the cross-ownership ban in big media markets — drawing more legal challenges from both sides.

The court, however, held off on deciding those cases because the agency had said it wanted to reconsider Martin’s actions. Yet the FCC has made no progress on that front and has instead punted the issue to the upcoming review of the media ownership rules. Tuesday’s court decision allows Martin’s relaxed rules on media ownership to take effect.

According to Andrew Jay Schwartzman, head of the nonprofit law firm Media Access Project, the decision signals that the court has lost patience with the FCC.

Media Access Project has led the public interest coalition in its fight against any relaxation of the rules, warning that too much media consolidation would lead to less diversity in media coverage. Schwartzman said that while he is disappointed by the court’s action, he understands why it is frustrated with the FCC’s slow pace.

Free Press, another public interest group involved in the challenges, called on the FCC “to take decisive action to protect media diversity and to encourage competition in local news.”

Robert McDowell, one of two Republicans on the five-member FCC, welcomed the court’s move to lift “burdensome ownership rules that are many years out of date.” He added that the decision is “particularly appropriate given the economic upheaval affecting the ongoing viability of many daily newspapers and broadcast stations.”

Still, John Sturm, head of the Newspaper Association of America, said he does not expect a wave of media companies to start buying up newspapers and TV stations in the same market. Even the eased rules adopted under Martin come with some restrictions.

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