WASHINGTON — A Senate committee unanimously approved bipartisan legislation that would halt for at least six months a proposal to let companies own a newspaper and broadcast station in the same city.
The bill is highly unlikely to pass Congress before the Federal Communications Commission's planned Dec. 18 vote on loosening the media ownership rules. But it was a strong message from senators to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin that he should delay the vote.
Martin, a Republican, will get another strong message today when he is expected to face sharp questioning about his controversial proposal during an appearance before a House oversight subcommittee.
Lawmakers from both parties have complained that Martin is circumventing proper procedure in trying to allow companies to own a newspaper and broadcast station in the 20 largest U.S. markets. They want time for more public comment on the proposal, which was announced by Martin on Nov. 13. They also want the FCC first to complete a previously promised review of ways to ensure that broadcasters serve their local communities, and take steps to increase ownership of TV and radio stations by women and minorities.
"Media ownership rules are important in a democracy," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), an opponent of further media consolidation and the bill's main sponsor. "We won't allow the FCC to rush to judgment, and we won't allow the public to be shut out of the process."
Tribune Co., owner of The Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5, has the most to gain by Martin's plan because it has newspaper and broadcast combinations in Los Angeles and four other markets. But last week the FCC gave Tribune waivers of at least two years from the so-called cross-ownership rule, the final regulatory hurdle to closing its $8.2-billion deal to go private by the end of the year.
The waivers trigger if the FCC approves the rule change before Jan. 1, giving Tribune relief as public interest groups are expected to sue in court to block their implementation. But a delay in the FCC vote would not hurt Tribune. The company also could itself trigger the temporary waivers by challenging the FCC's denial of its request for permanent waivers. Tribune may do that in the coming days to settle its regulatory situation for the deal's lenders instead of waiting for a Dec. 18 vote that could be delayed.
The FCC's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, have criticized Martin for trying to rush through his cross-ownership rule change. With the Tribune situation resolved, Copps said Tuesday, "we have even less reason to go ahead with that vote."