Republicans Begin To Understand the Poitics of Fear (That They Won't Be Reelected): Senate Rejects Relaxation of Ownership Rules

One of the things the Republicans did when they controlled Congress was to set up a process by which Congress could directly overrule an administrative agency. Called a “Resolution of Disapproval,” it must be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President like any other law. But the effect is to wipe away the agency action and restore the status quo to life before the agency action.

In 2003, when the FCC first relaxed the media ownership rules into practical non-existence, Congress was still firmly in Republican control. Mind you, many Republicans also disliked the FCC decision and wanted to see it overruled. Some disliked eliminating ownership limits because they understood that if a few companies control the news and therefore control public opinion, the own you forever. Others only hated the FCC relaxation of ownership rules because their constituents absolutely hated the relaxation of ownership rules and made that clear in no uncertain terms. But the Republican Congressional leadership stood staunchly with the Bush Administration (which backed the FCC’s decision to deregulate) and they prevented it from ever coming to a vote on the floor of the House.

Flash forward to now. Back in December, the FCC voted to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership limit. Senator Dorgan introduced a Resolution of Disapproval back in March. Despite a strongly worded veto threat by the White House, the Senate passed the resolution last night in a near unanimous vote. I say “near unanimous” because it was a voice vote, which means that it is impossible to tell the exact number or who voted how, but that it must have had overwhelming support since no one asked for a roll call vote.

After years of exploiting the politics of fear, the Republicans are learning a politics of fear all their own. It does not matter that this was a Republican FCC, or that the Bush White House is threatening a veto. After two losses within two weeks in “safe” southern districts, the fabled Republican Party discipline is disolving into a mad scramble for the lifeboats. With the public in an ugly mood and conservatives now once again on the receiving end of “media bias,” no one wants to go on record proudly standing by “our beloved Commander and Chief” to defend Rupert Murdoch’s right to own as many newspaper/television combinations as he can grab.

It’s not over yet, of course. Not by a long shot. While I would certainly hope and expect that Pelosi will schedule a vote in the House as soon as possible, I also expect Bush will veto the bill. That would require the House and Senate to vote for an overide, which may prove a harder thing to do — especially once the President and his big media buddies start twisting arms and calling in favors. But while we can’t afford to grow overconfident or assume this fight is won, we can certainly feel both that the momentum is on our side and that we have accomplished something really huge here.

And, in my nasty neurons and snarky receptors, I am savoring the new “Republican politics of fear.”

Stay tuned . . . . .


  1. Hooray to the members who did something too infrequently seen: stood up for American principles that value divergent voices over American principles valuing a hands-off approach to private business affairs. These are not easy priorities to balance.

    Which choice best serves our values? You rightly saw that it takes many different voices to make a chorus. It takes many eyes to keep government power in check. You made the better choice.

    Thank you!

  2. Harold, I leave the politics aside, but I think you maybe wrong in your observation. But I will point out that on a Thursday vote there was probably not a roll call vote as most of the members already had plane tickets to the districts in hand as they voted. Which would have been missed if they had to follow the procedures it would entail.

    As to impacts of the vote itself, I really don’t think it matters any more. If this was 1968 it would matter a whole lot for the reasons you state. But quite honestly you are beating a dead horse — literally. Go over to Editor & Publisher and search on circulation numbers — down 3.6% in the last quarter. This has been going year to year for the last 4 years. Good chance by end of year NYT may have margin calls on their senior debt their numbers are so bad.

    The pulp news industry is dying. What do dying industries do? Layoffs of course but also consolidation. Which is the phase that industry is in right now. To reassert the old rules on ownership is to accelerate the death of local dailies. Unable to share news staff resources with the TV side, management will cut their losses and eliminate the dailies in favor of the TV which is at least stable for the moment.

    You ought to be concerned if that accelerated death occurs. NYT goes under, all that page A1 syndication will probably be turned over to one of Murdoch’s holdings. Be careful what you wish for. Heh.

  3. Michael Powell of the FCC justified increased media concentration on grounds that regulation should protect consumers, not companies, and more deregulation of media ownership was needed to weed out players surviving not on economic merits but on regulatory barriers that protected them from competition

    as the transformation occurs from “pulp” to digital, the “Powell principle” as carried forward by Martin becomes increasingly confused between what’s competitive and what’s efficient, i.e., consolidating to avoid losses may be efficient, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to competition

    once large, consolidated content providers are capable of tying their content to the market power of digital distribution networks at the expense of smaller content providers, the Powell doctrine backfires from a positive to a negative sum game

    it suppresses small-scale entry enabled by digital technology into the content market by artificially granting market presence to the large players on non-economic merit – the very grounds on which increased media concentration was justified in the first place to represent “consumers” over “producers”

  4. “…once large, consolidated content providers are capable of tying their content to the market power of digital distribution networks at the expense of smaller content providers, the Powell doctrine backfires from a positive to a negative sum game

    it suppresses small-scale entry enabled by digital technology…” — Barry Payne

    I have to disagree on two counts:

    1/ Show me a legacy media content provider who has made the transition and made it BIG. If you go to Quantcast and look at the rankings there are no legacy media providers in the top 25. CNN is ranked 29th. Then you have to go all the way down to 82nd to see Newsweek, followed by NYT at 83rd. Hell DrudgeReport beats both of them at 67th. Nor is Fox News even in the top 100. So ‘Fair and Balanced’ doesn’t carry a lot of creed either. 🙂

    Look at Yahoo or Google vs CNN. In sheer page views CNN has ¼ their viewership. Google News alone beats CNN. All the legacy players have had a new media presence for at least 4 years. None of them have a winning formula, nor likely to have even though logic would dictate that their content sourcing power should lead them to dominance.

    2/ Digital distribution is vastly different than legacy distribution. Legacy media was for all intents and purposes a ‘push technology’. You increased eyeballs by getting as many copies of whatever in front of the customer. Hence content mattered less than distribution when the name of the game is eyeballs. Digital however is a ‘pull technology’. The name of the game is still eyeballs but now your content matters more than your distribution because the players, regardless of size are using the same distribution media. What you provide is what matters to make customers click that mouse. On that score so far, the legacy media has been found wanting.

    Bottom line — you need to recalibrate.

  5. johnmc, perhaps you misread the post and we agree … seems you’re making the case for how current net neutrality keeps the legacy players in their place on a level playing field … that’s the point … no matter how large or powerful any source of content (including Google et al), it can be bypassed with one click … which will change ONCE particular content is tied to particular QOS and TOS for bandwidth

  6. How about “lobbyist politics of fear?” This seems to be what’s going on in the brouhaha over “network neutrality.” The lobbyists (including MAP and Free Press) have been claiming that just because Internet service providers manage bandwidth on their networks, and throttle or block activities that abuse the network or rogue applications such as BitTorrent, they are threatening free speech (even though, to date, we have seen no evidence at all of any such threat). Harold, how can you condemn “politics of fear” when you are doing it yourself? Is it because MAP needs to maintain its budget of at least $600,000 (that’s based on its 1996 Form 990; it’s certainly larger now) to keep its lobbyists employed?

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