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Friday, January 28, 2005 - Page updated at 11:17 A.M.

White House won't appeal media ruling

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration yesterday abandoned plans to ask the Supreme Court to allow controversial rules to take effect that would have loosened restrictions on how large media conglomerates could grow.

The decision disappointed big media companies that had lobbied heavily in support of the rules and thrilled those who had fought to keep tighter rein on how much control one company should have over television, newspapers and radio stations in individual markets.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted the proposed rules in a hotly contested 3-2, party-line vote in June 2003. It must now decide whether to start anew on rules governing media consolidation or to re-argue its case before a lower court that the current proposals should be approved.

Powell leaving

The chief architect of the rules, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, is leaving in March, so the next step will be guided by his successor, who has not been named.

The rules would have allowed television networks such as CBS and Fox to buy a few more television stations nationally and let one company own the biggest newspaper and highest-rated television station in most cities.

They also would have allowed individual companies to own more television stations in the same city and restricted how many radio stations that one company could own, locally and nationally.

After consulting with FCC officials, the Justice Department told the agency yesterday it would not appeal a lower court decision to stay the rules.

Media giants NBC Universal, Viacom (owner of CBS), News Corp. (owner of Fox and the New York Post) and Tribune Co. (owner of the Los Angeles Times, several other papers and television stations) said they will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's decision.

But the court has been reluctant to take such cases if they are led by an industry, rather than government, lawyers say.

In September 2003, the day before the rules were to go into effect, they were stayed by a federal appeals court in Philadelphia. The court said the FCC had not done a satisfactory job of justifying how it drew them up.

It court did not rule on the merits of the regulations and left open the possibility it would approve them if they were better argued.

The rules were opposed by a broad coalition of interest groups and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who said a handful of media conglomerates would gain too much influence over the airwaves, reducing diversity of views and possibly creating monopoly advertising markets.

Powell and the FCC's two other GOP commissioners who had backed the rules, said the old ones were obsolete, crafted before the advent of modern outlets such as cable television, satellite radio and the Internet.

Appeal opposed

Yet Powell recommended the Justice Department not pursue an appeal, according to a source familiar with the situation.

He thought an appeal process would have been drawn-out and politically messy, even while believing the lower court did not show the FCC proper deference in staying the rules, the source said.

Powell, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, declined public comment. In Washington, FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy declined comment; Commissioner Kevin Martin was unavailable.

The Democrats on the commission, however, were cheered by the decision not to appeal.

"The previous order was a disaster," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "Now the administration has acknowledged it was legally flawed and not worth fighting for."

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