Copyright 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc. St.
Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
February 26, 2002 Tuesday Five Star Lift
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Pg. B6
LENGTH: 614 words
HEADLINE:MONOPOLY IN THE MEDIA
IN 1996, a Republican Congress
passed -- and a Democratic president signed -- a sweeping new law that
overhauled communications policy in the United States. The intent was to let
anyone get into any part of the communications business that he wanted to, and
to let anyone who was already there compete in any market against any other.
The law affected local and long-distance phone service,
cable and broadcast TV, radio and Internet communications. But because big
telephone and broadcast firms had a huge head start, the law was to be phased in
slowly. Congress ordered the Federal Communications Commission to make sure
everyone was playing by the same rules.
But six years
later, and one year after the Bush administration brought its free market
priorities to Washington, that "go slow" approach is under assault. The FCC has
begun taking the shackles off big telephone companies. And last week, cable and
broadcast companies learned that their regulatory restraints may come off,
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia -- often seen as second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in its influence
-- told the FCC that its wait-and-see approach would no longer be tolerated. The
court struck down an FCC rule that had prohibited cable companies from owning
local television stations in markets they served. And the court told the FCC to
reconsider a rule that prohibited broadcast networks from owning stations that
served more than 35 percent of the nation.
pending before the same court is a third FCC rule, one prohibiting a broadcaster
from owning more than one station in a market unless there are at least eight
other independent stations in the market. The FCC is also considering waiving
the rule against companies owning broadcast stations and newspapers in the same
market. The clear signal is that if the FCC doesn't deregulate, the court
From a business point of view, the economies of
this are obvious; advertising rates can be controlled, programming costs lowered
and competition can be bought out or crushed. Indeed, the court ruling last week
set off a wave of speculation about mergers and acquisitions in the
communications business. Companies will have to get big to survive.
The public's stake in this -- not that many in Washington
seem too concerned about that -- has to do with the quality of the
communications services consumers receive, and the number of sources they come
from. If the FCC follows the court's prodding, the same company could wind up
owning the only newspaper in a market, one or more of its television stations,
its cable service and eight or more radio stations. That means the public will
be getting news from fewer sources.
Michael K. Powell,
the new chairman of the FCC, is sensitive to the argument that a free society
needs many voices -- a sensitivity not shared by Congress or the appeals court.
But Mr. Powell is a free-market advocate, as are the two other Republicans on
the five-member panel. Given the constraints of the Telecom Act, and the
impatience of the court that is interpreting it, there may be little Mr. Powell
can do to stop the monopolization of the media.
it's worth remembering that the Telecom Act was passed during the heady days of
the "Republican Revolution," when deregulation was seen as panacea for the
nation's ills. Since then, there has been trouble with energy deregulation and
airline deregulation, not to mention the Enron scandal. Congress should revisit
the subject of competition in the communications business, and soon. The
marketplace of ideas is too important to democracy to leave to the vagaries of a