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US Restrictions on Media Ownership Relaxed - 2003-06-02

U.S. regulators have voted to relax restrictions on how many local newspapers and broadcasting stations any one company can own. Discussion centered around the question of how much power the media have in dictating public tastes and steering public debate.

With the highly-anticipated vote Monday, the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission changed restrictions to media ownership in the United States.

Erin Dozier, an attorney with the commission's Media Bureau, said one major modification relaxes limits on so-called "cross-ownership" of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city.

"The report concludes that because newspapers and broadcast stations are not substitutes from a competition standpoint, common ownership of these outlets will not present competitive harms. The report and order further finds that common ownership of a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market can create certain efficiencies that will benefit the public interest by enhancing the common owner's ability to provide news and information," she said.

In a position favored by many large media companies, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the old rules had been made decades ago and were applicable to a different media market. He added that keeping the outdated restrictions unchanged was not a viable option.

"We have embraced a challenge unparalleled in the FCC's history. We collected a thorough record, analyzed our broadcast ownership rules from ground up, and wrote rules that matched the times," Mr. Powell said.

Critics of the new FCC rules include consumer advocates, civil rights and religious groups, small broadcasters and the National Rifle Association. They charge that if television and newspapers are combined under the same ownership, they will not monitor each other or provide differing opinions.

Republican Senator Trent Lott is among a bipartisan group of senators who has introduced legislation to maintain the present level of media concentration. "When you allow this type of concentration where you could have a market where one company could own and dominate the print media, could theoretically own one of the [satellite TV] dish networks, could own the local cable, could own the local television station, or two stations, where is the limit?" Mr. Lott said.

Protesting with about 50 other people outside the FCC building just before the vote, civil affairs activist Jesse Jackson, with the Rainbow Push Coalition, compared the prospect of greater media consolidation in the United States to what could happen in a country like Iraq.

"Today in Iraq, if the Shiites sought to own all the radio, TV and newspapers, we would say no," Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Jackson criticized the possibility of greater media concentration into fewer hands, saying too few people controlling too much information is unhealthy for any democracy.