THE BLOG
11/19/2007 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Three Blind Mice

Four score and two Nielsen sweeps period ago, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell was the Great Emancipator of communications. Where Lincoln freed the slaves, Powell freed broadcast and newspaper conglomerates from the shackles of oppression caused by excessive government regulation.

In 2003, his commission issued the Emancipation Proclamation by a 3-2 vote, finally breaking the chains of years of servitude and injustice by wiping away evil ownership rules, many of which dated back to the last century (1999).

The Powell commission voted to permit television network owners to buy even more stations, raising the "station cap" from a measly coverage of 35% of the nation to 45%. It also relaxed the especially onerous, punitive and un-American restrictions against owning TV, radio and newspapers in the same market, so-called "cross ownership."

The Great Emancipator's idea was to level the playing field so the average American mega-billionaires could all make excessive profits. Why should some of the pigs be kept away from the trough?

Chairman Michael was an idealistic regulator whose mission seemed to be to allow the few to own the many-- and still increase competition and diversity, as he argued eloquently- a feat that would be one of the eight wonders of the economic world.

The FCC 's new rules were a shot in the arm for democracy, he explained at media conferences, allowing a fuller range of opinion than possible under the old rules. It was thinking like this that convinced the average media mogul that Chairman Michael was the patron saint of free enterprise. Any day they would convince the administration his face should be on the new $1,000 bill.

But then the Senate voted in 2004 to rescind the new FCC rules, which allowed one company to own as many as three TV, and eight radio stations, as well as a newspaper in the same large city.

What an outrage! What a denigration of all the hard work Chairman Michael and the Three Blind Mice (the Republican majority of the five man commission) had done over the years to free the media moguls from the impediments that had limited fulfillment of their manifest destiny, some of whose corporate goals are: We want to own it all (it sounds better in Latin on their corporate seals).

What a slap in the face it was to the well-paid lobbyists who had been convincing legislators since June 2003 that the new rules were in the public interest. After all the money they spent on dinners, drinks, free plane rides to fancy resorts for corporate meetings and industry seminars and whatever else lobbyists do in a town and Congress run by lobbyists

What was the Senate coming to those days, actually doing something for the people, instead of to them?

As if that wasn't bad enough, a Federal court in Philadelphia ordered the FCC to reconsider the rules that big broadcasting and newspaper publishing companies had lobbied and litigated for years.

But all of that is ancient history.

Out of the ashes rises today a new Phoenix. Or at least a Tucson.

Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has taken up the fight for cross-ownership now that the fallen happy gladiator Powell was carried out on his shield. In a speech last week that ranks with William Jennings' Bryan Cross of Gold Speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, Chairman Martin sang the glories of cross-ownership. Allowing newspapers to own a TV station or three and radio stations in the same town sounded like the most important contribution to freedom of the press since the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in 1439.

Basically, what the new free speech zealot argues is the ban is outmoded in the age of cable, TV and the web. Under his plan, a merger that combines a big daily newspaper with a TV or a radio station would be allowed in any of the nation's 20 largest cities, if at least eight separately owned "major media voices" remain after the deal. Also cross-ownership deals could not involve any of the top four TV stations.

It's very complex. Don't be embarrassed if you don't understand it. Neither do I. As always, the FCC goal seems to be to sufficiently confuse the issues so the public won't know about it until it's too late. Not that the public really cares about what happens to the public's airwaves, as long as they have the freedom to get text message on cell phones.

Not everyone is thrilled about the proposed new rules. What are we, argue newspaper owners in smaller markets, chopped liver?

Nevertheless, the big boys in the media ownership game will be on their knees Thursday giving thanks this Thanksgiving Day to the Pilgrim fathers and the Three Blind Mice of the FCC who can make all of their wildest dreams of avarice come true.

So far Chairman Martin plans to relax the rule for joint ownership in larger cities. Eventually the rule could be so relaxed, the hopes in the breast of smaller media moguls, it could eventually fall asleep.

The beauty part of Chairman Martin's strategy is that he is not plunging madly ahead like Powell. He will be making the changes with all due deliberate speed, to satisfy the courts. By moving slowly, the Almost Greatest Emancipator may be able to get the ball across the goal line by Dec. 18.

And it's not mere rhetoric. Chairman Martin is making the other FCC commissioners vote on the plan by Dec. 18. Being the leader of the Three Blind Mice majority of the FCC, Martin is assured of the vote.

What's the hurry? There are those who say the FCC vote would be a Christmas gift to Sam Zell, the man whose $8.2 billion purchase of Tribune Company is dependent on new rules. Under loopholes in the rules now, Tribune owns both newspapers and TV stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Hartford and South Florida. Zell and Tribune hope to complete the deal by year's end for tax purposes and must get "waivers" or a rule change to do so. Otherwise, no turkey. The deal is off.

Some people may argue this is another example of corporate welfare. I'm one of them. I even think this may be the driving force behind Chairman Martin's passion for opening the gates to diversity of opinion. But, hey, I'm a cynic.