Tribune Challenges FCC Cross-Ownership Rules

Publisher Files Appeal Charging Policy Is Unconstitutional

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WASHINGTON ( -- Tribune Co. and its buyer are attacking the constitutionality of an FCC rule that bars cross-ownership by one company of a broadcast outlet and a newspaper in the same city. The move comes days after the Federal Communications Commission rejected a request for permanent waivers to the rule.

In appeals filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, both Tribune Co. and the ownership group that includes investor Sam Zell and an employee stock-ownership plan contend that the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule "is unconstitutional in violation of the First and Fifth Amendment."

Tribune's second try
Newspaper publishers have talked about trying to overturn the cross-ownership rules for years and for Tribune it's a second attempt. Publishers argue the rule is outdated and unfair in light of growing local competition for readers and ads from new media and internet sites that didn't exist when the rule was enacted more than 30 years ago.

John Sturm, president-CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, yesterday told a House committee that the only people who can't own a local TV station are "foreigners, convicted felons and newspaper publishers." Mr. Sturm argued that it's unfair to other forms of cross-ownership in a market but block newspaper publishers from effectively competing in the new marketplace.

Consumer groups have answered that the rule assures diverse local-news choices. Despite new ways to tap into local content, they say consumers still get most of their local news from reporting done at local TV stations and newspapers. Combining those providers would lessen choices and threaten civic dialog, they argue.

Tribune and its buyer had wanted the FCC to issue permanent waivers to its cross-ownership rules so the company could keep TV stations and newspapers in Chicago; New York; Los Angeles; Hartford, Conn.; and Southern Florida despite Tribune Co.'s $8.2 billion sale to Mr. Zell and the employee group.

Only got one
Instead, the FCC gave a permanent waiver for the company to keep WGN-TV and WGN-AM and the Chicago Tribune, but rejected waivers in the other markets, directing that temporary waivers would be issued if the company appealed the rejection. The lawsuits prompt issuance of the temporary waivers. The companies ask the court to either overturn the cross-ownership rule or issue permanent waivers.

The FCC on Dec. 18 is slated to vote on a proposal from Chairman Kevin J. Martin that would replace the current ban on publishers buying broadcasters. Under the proposal, publishers in the top 20 markets could buy a station that isn't among the local market's top four; publishers would be allowed to buy in smaller markets only if they were able to show the combination would benefit communities. Consumer groups have warned that with few standards to judge benefits the proposal would essentially kill the rule.

Tribune Co. owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV; Newsday and WPIX-TV in New York; the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and WSFL-TV in Miami; and in Hartford, it owns the Hartford Courant and TV stations WTIC-TV and WTXX-TV.
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