Just in time for the holidays, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering changes to media cross-ownership rules that watchdogs say could good give Rupert Murdoch's massive conglomerate News Corporation the go-ahead to acquire more big media outlets.
The proposal could also keep women and minorities out of the media market, according to civil rights groups.
Reports suggest Murdoch has recovered from the British phone hacking scandal and is ready to jump back into the media consolidation game. Both the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times are on the list of potential targets.
These acquisitions would be illegal unless the FCC changes its rules, according to the media watchdog group Free Press.
The details are not yet public, but according to reports, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a proposal last week among his fellow commissioners that would end a longstanding ban on owning the major daily newspaper and radio outlets in the same market, and would allow one company to jointly own a daily newspaper and TV stations in the nation's top 20 markets.
Restrictions on media "cross ownership" were put in place to prevent media owners like Murdoch from monopolizing the news and information available in a single area, especially major media markets. The FCC could vote on the proposal as early as December.
"Chairman Genachowski's attempt to overhaul longstanding media ownership limits is little more than a gift-wrapped giveaway to Rupert Murdoch," said Free Press President Craig Aaron.
Congress struck down a similar rule originally proposed by the FCC under the Bush administration in 2007. Federal appeals courts have also struck down similar proposals, and in one case the FCC was ordered to consider the impact such rules could have on the number of media ownership opportunities for woman and people of color.
Media owners and the National Broadcast Association appealed, but the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting the lower courts' rulings stand.
"Recycling the Bush administration's failed policies not only ignores the will of the courts and Congress but is a slap in the face of the 99 percent of Americans who oppose further media consolidation," Aaron said.
Free Press says the proposed rule would reduce the amount of local news available in markets and cause a decline in media ownership by woman and minorities.
The FCC, however, says it would keep certain protections to promote "competition, diversity and localism." In a statement, the FCC said the proposal would "streamline and modernize media ownership rules, including eliminating outdated prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross ownership."
The FCC is coming under fire for considering the proposal without holding public hearings, and civil rights groups have warned the FCC not to move forward without considering how the new rules could impact minority media ownership.
"It has been suggested by some media outlets that there is little opposition to the FCC's proposed course of action, particularly within the civil rights and public interest communities. This is simply not true," said Jessica Gonzalez, a policy expert with the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "A number of voices ... have consistently said that the FCC must explore any and all impacts on ownership diversity before moving ahead with any rule changes."
Women own just 7 percent of commercial radio and TV stations, while ethnic and racial minorities control as little as 5 percent of these TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations, according to FCC data.
Murdoch's News Corp. already owns the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, as well as Fox News and TV studios and channels across the world. Genachowski's proposed changes may allow Disney, Comcast-NBC and Sinclair Broadcast Group to gobble up more channels as well.