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Originally published May 21, 2010 at 2:49 PM | Page modified May 21, 2010 at 7:16 PM

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Ryan Blethen / The Democracy Papers

Time to end the cross-ownership debate and ensure media diversity

The Federal Communications Commission and an appeals court should find cross-ownership rules inadequate. Both the court and the FCC should find ways to tighten the rules to make media consolidation difficult, writes Seattle Times columnist Ryan Blethen.

Times editorial page editor

The media cross-ownership debate should be settled by now. Unfortunately, it is acting up again like a slow stubborn disease fed by the greed of big media companies.

The question of how much is too much for one media company to own should have been answered in 2007. At the end of that year the Federal Communications Commission wrapped up an exhaustive review of its cross-ownership rules. It held public hearings across the country. The feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of not relaxing cross-ownership rules. The FCC also commissioned studies, which again shed an unflattering light on media consolidation.

It would make sense then that the FCC would look at the studies, listen to the public and tighten up its long-standing consolidation rules. Didn't happen.

Instead, former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin decided to monkey with the rules, making it easier to own a newspaper and broadcast outlet in the same market.

The rule changes permitted a company to own a newspaper and broadcast station in any of the nation's top 20 media markets as long as there are at least eight media outlets in the market. If the combination included a television station, that station couldn't be in the market's top four.

The rule changes were more liberal than Martin advertised. His rewriting allowed the FCC to grant waivers to companies that didn't meet the top-20 criteria, essentially making consolidation possible from Chehalis to Chicago. The FCC also tossed in 42 permanent waivers.

Why is cross-ownership again an issue if the matter was settled in 2007? Easy: It wasn't settled. It was litigated, which brings us up to last Monday. That was the last day for briefs to be filed with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which is hearing challenges to the rule change.

I'll spare readers the tortuous legal reasons why the challenge is being heard two and a half years after the FCC's vote. What matters is who is challenging and why.

Martin didn't make anybody happy with the change. Broadcasters and large newspaper companies claim the commission didn't go far enough in loosening the rules. The other argument comes from consumer advocates who believe the changes went too far in allowing consolidation.

Corie Wright, policy counsel with Free Press — a media-policy organization that filed a brief with Media Access Project, the United Church of Christ and Prometheus Radio Project — hopes the court frowns upon the Martin rules.

"We would like to see that decision reversed or remanded to the FCC with directives to make the rules more effective," she said.

That would be the preferred outcome. Complicating the matter though is the FCC itself. The commission is approaching its congressionally required 2010 quadrennial review of its media ownership rules.

The FCC has changed since 2007. Then, there were three Republicans who favored consolidation and two Democrats who opposed consolidation. Now the FCC is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans. It is possible the court could rule one way and the FCC could come up with a contradictory set of rules.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was vocally opposed to the rule change in 2007. His position has not changed in 2010. He says there is a crisis in news that has been driven by consolidation and that the Internet hasn't created a plethora of news-generating outlets.

"We can't just delude ourselves with how we're going to create new models on the Internet," Copps said. "Most of the news is going to still come from newspapers and broadcast outlets."

He's right. The FCC knows this. The court should understand this. The 3rd Circuit and the FCC have a chance to finally kill the cross-ownership debate and ensure the United States has a diverse media.

Ryan Blethen's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

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