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Rebuffed but Resolute

Rep. W.J. 'Billy' Tauzin lost a battle -- a rarity -- blindsided by outrage over FCC's media ownership rules. But he still sees how he can get his way.

August 25, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, W.J. "Billy" Tauzin is used to getting what he wants.

In June, the Louisiana Republican broke six years of political deadlock and helped win approval of the biggest expansion of the Medicare program in nearly 40 years. And he outmaneuvered House Democrats this spring when he pushed through a major energy bill, handing President Bush a victory on a key economic policy issue.

But when the Louisiana lawmaker tried last month to fend off the unanticipated political attack on the federal relaxation of media ownership rules, Tauzin -- who once portrayed Gen. George S. Patton in a GOP fund-raising video -- did not prevail.

"It was his Vietnam," said Adam D. Thiere, director of telecommunications studies at the CATO Institute, a Washington think tank. "Realistically, there were only so many people you could turn to for help in that fight. There wasn't much of a broad constituency."

Over Tauzin's objections, the House passed an appropriations bill that would keep television broadcasters from owning stations that reached more than 35% of American households. The measure would effectively roll back a 45% TV ownership cap approved by the Federal Communications Commission on June 2.

In an interview, Tauzin remained defiant.

"If Congress were to go back to 35%, I think the courts would throw it out," he said. "That said, this thing is not finished. The president is still determined to keep it out of the appropriations bill. And we have more than 100 members who have signed a letter saying they would back up a veto." (The votes of 146 House members would be needed to sustain a veto.)

The House vote was a rare rebuke of the colorful Cajun and occasional actor, who friends and colleagues say possesses a razor-sharp mind and keen political instincts, as well as little-publicized ties to the broadcast industry.

As Tauzin clung to his party's philosophy of encouraging industry deregulation, experts say he was blindsided by one of the biggest political backlashes in a decade: Such unlikely allies as the National Rifle Assn. and the National Organization for Women joined other groups to upend the FCC's relaxation of media ownership rules.

Although Bush administration officials have recommended that the president veto any bill that reverses the FCC's rule-loosening plans, the agency's rules are set to be examined next month by the Senate, where momentum also is building to dismantle at least some of the FCC's handiwork.

And last week FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell tried to quell criticism that industry consolidation is making the media too remote when he announced his agency would take steps to make broadcasters more responsive to local communities.

Tauzin missed "the telltale signs of voter outrage," said David King, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, who has written a book about the House Commerce Committee. "These weren't big-money interests. These were ordinary Americans. It is politically rare, but refreshing, to see" such an uprising.

For his part, Tauzin characterizes the media ownership battle as little different from other bitter political fights.

He credits the lobbying muscle of independent TV network affiliate broadcasters with persuading lawmakers to oppose networks such as News Corp.'s Fox and Viacom Inc.'s CBS and to vote down the FCC TV ownership rules.

"What happened here basically is you have an economic contest between the networks and the affiliates, and the affiliates have more grass-roots connection to Congress," Tauzin said. "Liberals don't like the Fox network, and conservatives don't like NBC, ABC and CBS."

But the battle highlighted what critics say is one of Tauzin's shortcomings: Like Powell, his Republican ally, Tauzin hews so closely to his party's laissez-faire business philosophy that it sometimes blinds him to political realities.

Like Powell, who stopped attending FCC public hearings on media ownership, Tauzin refused to meet with critics of the FCC rules such as James Goodmon, chairman of Capitol Broadcasting Co. of Raleigh, N.C., and one of the key figures spurring Rep. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) to introduce the ownership cap rollback measure that lawmakers overwhelmingly approved.

Instead, Tauzin campaigned in favor of an FCC rule change by citing ownership statistics and a congressional mandate to review and modify the rules. He also noted that a federal court had ordered the FCC to justify or revise its media ownership rules to reflect a modern media environment where there are hundreds of cable TV and satellite channels and millions of Internet Web sites.

But the fine points of policy debate got lost in a public furor that opponents distilled into a five-word argument: "media diversity good; concentration bad."

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