Big Media vs Joe Public: US Court Hears the Arguments

13 February 2004

The anguished cry came from the heart. "Everybody's got a view. They all want what they want, and they want it now. They all seem to want something different."

Thus wailed attorney John Rogovin, representing the Federal Communications Commission to a three-judge panel at the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court was considering appeals from consumer interest groups and media owners, both sides arguing -- from opposing standpoints -- that the FCC had exceeded its authority in altering longstanding rules that prevent companies from owning newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same cities

Consumerists also contend the regulatory body ignored congressional intent and its mandate to protect the public when it relaxed regulations limiting the ability of media companies to merge and consolidate.

At the same time a phalanx of lawyers representing Big Media also slammed the FCC, complaining that its regulatory relaxation didn't go the whole hog.

Attorney Rogovin sprang to the defense of his client. The FCC's carefully considered balance between the monetary interests of media companies and the pro-competition interests of the general public was, he implied, a benchmark alongside which the judgement of Solomon was downright one-sided.

Joe Public (or his self-appinted representatives) fear that the new rules could lead to a handful of giant companies owning most of the major sources of news gathering and reporting in some media markets.

Conversely, America's largest radio company, Clear Channel Communications, complains the new rules will increase its difficulties in owning several competing stations in the same city. It would like to see such brakes on its EPS swept away.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of sixty-two television stations in 39 US markets, sang from the same hymnsheet. It asked the court to overrule an FCC regulation that blocks companies from owning more than one of the four biggest TV stations in a media market.

The arguments in a nutshell: The public interest lobby contends that the current law imposes strict limits on the FCC's ability to deregulate the industry; the larger media owners say it allows the FCC to make significant changes -- but only those that lead to less regulation.

Chief Judge Anthony Scirica suggested the court's ruling could depend in part on how it interprets the specific law that authorizes the FCC to regulate the industry. "It's a question of how heavily the thumb weighs on the scale."

But Scirica did not indicate how, or when, the court might rule. Frequently, such decisions take several months.

Data sourced from: The Washington Post Online; additional content by WARC staff