In an unusual action, Commissioner Michael Copps last week publicly released a letter he wrote to Chairman Martin ( whose office is just down the hall from Copps’ office on the Eighth Floor of the FCC’s headquarters in Washington) urging the Chairman to initiate a proceeding to determine if the News Corporation’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal is in the public interest. Copps points to the fact that the company currently owns another daily newspaper published in New York (the New York Post) as well as two full power television stations (WWOR and WNYW) in the market. While recognizing that the FCC has previously ruled that national newspapers should not be counted for purposes of the FCC’s newspaper- broadcast cross ownership limitations which currently bar local ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers in the same area. This exception for national papers was principally decided in connection with Gannett’s USA Today, headquartered in the Washington DC area, where Gannett also owns a TV station. Copps argues that, despite the USA Today precedent, this situation nevertheless demands further review for two reasons: 1) the local concentration of two TV stations and two widely-read local newspapers and 2) the national concentration that will result in two of the five most widely read newspapers in the country being commonly owned with one of the four major television networks, as well as the owner of many other outlets of communication spread throughout the country.
One seemingly unique aspect of the Copps request is that he is asking that the FCC investigate the acquisition of a newspaper, over which the FCC has no direct jurisdiction. In fact, in the past, TV companies have purchased newspapers that they could not own consistent with the cross-ownership rules, with the understanding that they would divest one of these interests by the time that the next license renewal for the television station came up (or ask for a waiver of the rules at that time). This would be necessary as the FCC would have jurisdiction over the duopoly through the renewal application. In recent years, there have been companies which have bought newspapers in their television markets, taking the risk that, by the time the television station renewal was filed, the FCC’s cross-ownership rules would have changed. And they are now left pursuing waivers in connection with their renewal applications. In this case, while the FCC would not have jurisdiction over the acquisition of the Journal, they would have jurisdiction over the pending TV renewal applications.
This letter also seems to be part of the recent concerted effort to stop the Chairman’s announced intent to resolve the multiple ownership proceeding before the end of the year. And Commissioner Copps is not the only one complaining. Senators Dorgan and Lott held a press conference asking for more consideration of the issues, as has Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Members of Congress have written the FCC asking for delay, and the Senate committee which oversees broadcasting last week held a hearing where regulatory restraint was also urged. Some observers have suggested that, with all of the opposition, the Chairman might not get all the issues resolved, but might settle for prompt resolution of the cross-interest issue. This latest short-distance correspondence might well be an attempt to derail even this modest reform.