Does Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones face serious obstacles at the FCC? The almost universal opinion has been “no”. Big as it is, News Corporation and Dow Jones don’t really compete against each other in any significant markets. The only real FCC concern would be the newspaper-television crossownership rule. But, although New Corp owns a station in New York City, the nationally-circulated Walll Street Journal — under FCC precedent –is not considered a New York paper.
Nevertheless, Michael Copps — a Democratic commissioner at the FCC — warned that the deal was not a “slam dunk.” “Not so fast,” he wrote in a statement issued from his office yesterday. “What’s good for shareholders of huge media conglomerates isn’t always what’s good for the public interest or our civic dialogue. We should immediately conduct a careful factual and legal analysis of the transaction to determine how it implicates specific FCC rules and our overarching statutory obligation to protect the public interest.”
The overall message here is clear. Translated from regulator-speak, it’s like the cop on the beat who stops someone to say “I don’t like the way you look. I can’t think of anything to charge you with now, but given enough time I’m sure I can find something”.
And that “something,” Copps is saying, needn’t be a specific rule that’s broken. Instead, he is invoking a vague “statutory obligation to serve the public interest.” Forget the rule of law and FCC precedent. If the FCC doesn’t like it, you can’t do it.
That vagueness is nothing new — the FCC’s “public interest” standard has often been criticized for its lack of definition. That, however, doesn’t make it less worrisome.
Copps is of course, only one of five commissioners. It’s unlikely that two others share his views. But nothing can be taken for granted.