TRUE, there was something sly about the way Sen. Ernest Hollings, urged on by Sen. Edward Kennedy, slipped that last-minute rider concerning the Federal Communications Commission cross-ownership rule into the federal appropriations bill. But there's also been something sly about the way media magnate Rupert Murdoch has been angling for repeal of that rule, which bans ownership of a newspaper and a TV station in the same city. When Mr. Murdoch received a temporary waiver of that rule over two years ago, he assured members of Congress he'd sell holdings in Boston and New York to conform to the regulation. Instead, he had been lobbying hard to get the rule changed.
The likelihood of a deregulation-minded FCC granting that is what prompted the hasty legislative foray.
But the real issue in all this is not whether the lawmakers or the press baron played politics fairly. The issue is whether the cross-ownership rule should stand. It was adopted 13 years ago when the FCC, under a Nixon-appointed chairman, became concerned that media conglomerates were swallowing up newspapers and broadcast outlets at such a rate that many United States communities would be left with only one editorial voice to listen to. This was seen as a threat to the ability of voters to make intelligent decisions.
Today, the media scene has changed. Cable TV offers a multiplicity of channels, some of which carry credible public-affairs programming. Is there still a need to protect diversity? And does the cross-ownership rule, instead of aiding freedom of expression, dampen it by preventing well-heeled owners from keeping financially shaky newspapers alive?
These are questions that Congress should take up in a thoughtful, orderly manner. Not with quick legislative feints.