US Appeal Court Reinstates Tighter Media Ownership Rules

25 June 2004

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia yesterday (Thursday) consigned to the trashcan the slackened rules on media ownership introduced last July by the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC's controversial ruling, aggressively lobbied for by major media owners such as News Corporation and Viacom, greatly eased the extant restrictions on ownership, in particular that which prevented any single company from owning both a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same city.

Dancing to the tune orchestrated by Big Media and the White House, the FCC also swept away barriers that limited the number of media outlets permitted to any one company within larger markets such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But this media free-for-all was overturned by yesterday's appeal court ruling to the delight of consumer-interest groups as polarized as the National Organization for Women and the National Rifle Association. To say nothing of smaller media owners and a raft of politicians across the political spectrum.

Stated the court in its 2-1 judgement: "The Commission has not sufficiently justified its particular chosen numerical limits for local television ownership, local radio ownership and cross-ownership of media within local markets."

However, dissenting judge Anthony Scirica was not of like mind, opining that the court had "substituted its own policy judgement for that of the FCC and upset the ongoing review of broadcast media regulation mandated by Congress".

Nor was FCC chairman Michael Powell (son of secretary of state Colin) gracious in defeat. "Today's decision sets near-impossible standards for justifying bright-line ownership limits. This has created a clouded and confused state of media law," he growled

But Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, the law firm that brought the court challenge, spoke for the vast number of organizations and US citizens who opposed the consolidation of yet more power in the hands of a rapidly dwingling number of media owners.

"This is a big, big win for diversity in the media," he said. "The judges agreed with us that preserving democracy is more important than helping big companies grow bigger."

It is uncertain if this is the end of the long-running saga which could be referred to the Supreme Court. However, many believe this would be a politically risky move during a presidential election year. The White House incumbent may not wish to parade his predilection for major media interests at this sensitive time.

Data sourced from: Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff