After the August congressional recess, hot political debate will continue over the Federal Communications Commission's rule changes, which raise media ownership limits and allow cross-ownership of print and broadcast outlets. In his angry dissent against the changes, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wrote that the new policy "threatens to degrade civil discourse and the quality of our society's intellectual, cultural and political life." A stroll down memory lane offers some interesting anecdotal insight into the civility and politics surrounding the original rules.
The FCC's limits on cross-ownership are the progeny of the Nixon administration. In the early 1970s, when the limits were first proposed, President Nixon was feeling the heat from The Washington Post's constant revelations about Watergate. The Post owned television stations and was looking to acquire more, but the planned FCC rules prohibited it from doing so, and the company sold its Washington broadcast arm. In this case, ownership limits on a media conglomerate could have restricted a groundbreaking story. The Post was on Nixon's enemies list, and there is a wealth of evidence proving the Nixon White House used federal agencies to punish its enemies. A transcript from a Sept. 15, 1972, conversation involving Nixon and advisors Bob Haldeman and John Dean is a good example.
Nixon: We're going after him.
Haldeman: That's the guy we've got to ruin.
Nixon: You want to remember, too, he's an attorney for The Washington Post. . . . I think we are going to fix that son-of-a-bitch. Believe me. We are going to. . . . We have not used the power. . .. We haven't used the Bureau and we haven't used the Justice Department, but things are going to change now.
Dean: That's an exciting prospect.
One of the most strident critics of the June FCC rule changes has been New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter. In his May 22 column defending the old ownership restrictions, Mr. Safire argued that "the concentration of power -- political, corporate, media, cultural -- should be anathema to conservatives." We doubt that was Nixon's reason for spearheading these limits on major media companies.
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