Court ruling heartens media watchdogs in advance of FCC ownership rules review

Court ruling heartens media watchdogs in advance of FCC ownership rules review

Supporters of diverse local media and champions of competition among news outlets are celebrating the recent U.S. Court of Appeals verdict in Prometheus Radio Project v. the FCC. The court rejected Federal Communications Commission rules that would have opened up ownership to further corporate consolidation. In the wake of the egregious overstepping by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s uber British tabloid News of the World, the ruling has taken on an heroic cast. The court said that in making its rules the FCC had ignored the input of millions of American citizens.

“This is a major victory not just for our media but for our democracy,” Prometheus Policy Director Brandy Doyle told Democracy Now. “The court blocked the FCC’s attempt to end a 35 year old ban on newspaper and broadcast cross-ownership, when one company owns both in the same market… thousands of people spoke out at hearings held by the FCC and millions of people filed comments and raised their voice against this. The Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia agreed that what the FCC did was undemocratic and the process through which they did it was undemocratic.”

Prometheus Radio project is a non-profit group that builds community radio stations and advocates for media news and information that more directly reflects the concerns of local populations.

The Bush-era FCC twice tried to pass deregulating rules, in 2003 and 2007, and both times was blocked by the courts.

The recent court ruling came as the Obama-era FCC gears up to consider media ownership rules. Media watchdogs are pushing for the rules to be strengthened given that corporations have found ways to effectively chip away at them or skirt them altogether.

In Denver, for example, local TV news stations KDVR and KWGN work under a “shared services agreement” where essentially the same staff produces news programs at both stations. Watchdogs have flagged that kind of agreement as a violation of the spirit of the law if not the letter of the law and argue that the station owners are squatting on public air wave space through mutual agreement.

The argument for relaxing ownership laws made by corporate lawyers and rejected by the court was in part that cable television and the internet now ensure that a diversity of voices are heard on issues of public concern. Free network news, however, is still the main channel through which the public receives local news by a long shot and the FCC presented no evidence to counter the data in support of that fact. The court added that many local news websites are also owned by television stations and newspapers, which unsurprisingly use them to promote the work of their own staff.

Doyle said that 99 percent of the millions of Americans who officially commented on the FCC rules were against consolidation. The fact that the FCC moved ahead with deregulation anyway, she said, is another demonstration of the sway communications corporations have in the nation’s capital.

She added that Murdoch, for example, enjoys a permanent waiver of the rules banning cross ownership in New York. His News Corps owns the New York Post and TV station WNYW.

“The court not only ruled we have the right to media diversity,” Doyle said, “the court also ruled that we also have a right to impact the rules that shape our media system.”

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John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic
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