In a narrow ruling unlikely to have an immediate effect on current broadcasters, a federal appeals court on Thursday overturned a 2008 decision by the Federal communications Commission to relax restrictions on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same city.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia, did not rule on the merits of the 2008 regulatory changes, which made it easier for a single company to own both a station and a newspaper in the same locality. Instead, the court said that the F.C.C. had failed to allow sufficient time for official notice and public comment on the new rules, as required by law.
The ruling Thursday essentially sent the issue back to the F.C.C., which is undergoing a mandatory re-evaluation of ownership rules anyway. At the same time, the court upheld most of the media ownership rules handed down by the commission in 2008.
In a statement, the general counsel for the F.C.C., took no notice of the cross-ownership ruling and instead cited the court’s approval of the other rules for ownership, saying that the decision affirms the F.C.C.’s authority to promote competition, localism and diversity in the modern marketplace.”
But counsel for Free Press, a public advocacy group that supported the challenge to the 2008 ownership standard, said that today’s decision is a sweeping victory for the public interest because it concluded that competition in the media — not more concentration — will provide Americans with the local news and information they need.
The head of Media Access Project, one of the groups that brought the case — and the lead lawyer for those groups — acknowledged that the ruling did little more than bounce the issue back to the F.C.C., which will include it in the reassessment of rules that the commission is mandated to make every four years. He also said the more immediate impact would come in the radio business, where efforts by some companies to expand the ownership limits — currently up to eight stations in a single city — were rejected.
The broadcast ownership rules have always been politically charged, with Republican administrations arguing for almost unfettered freedom to own stations and Democratic administrations pushing for limitations to enhance diversity and avoid dominance by the largest media voices. He added that it was possible and even likely that the current F.C.C., which he said seemed more focused on Internet issues, could reinstate the 2008 rule. And then they will take it up again in court.