Skip to comments.Armey pushes Belo measure: Majority leader tries to force sale of Dallas-area media property
Posted on 10/07/2002 7:48:10 AM PDT by GeneD
WASHINGTON House Majority Leader Dick Armey has attempted to slip language into a military appropriations bill that would force Belo, parent company of The Dallas Morning News, to divest itself of one of its Dallas-area media properties.
Congressional and company officials said Mr. Armey's office asked Republicans to insert the provision as House and Senate aides completed work Friday on the military construction appropriations conference report that awaits final congressional action.
Though the provision was not included in the working draft after objections were raised, House and Senate conferees could add it when they meet early this week to finalize the bill.
Executives at Dallas-based Belo and a Texas congressman accused Mr. Armey of abuse of power, saying he is retaliating against the company out of anger at its newspaper coverage.
Mr. Armey, a Flower Mound Republican who is retiring at the end of the year, has blamed The News for his son's failure to capture the GOP nomination for his House seat. After Denton County Judge Scott Armey's April 9 runoff loss, Dick Armey accused the newspaper of "vicious unprofessionalism."
Greg Crist, press secretary in the majority leader's office, referred calls for comment to Mr. Armey's personal office spokesman, Richard Diamond, who did not return them. The congressman has refused to talk to reporters with Belo's media outlets since his son's defeat.
Robert W. Decherd, Belo's chairman, president and chief executive officer, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the congressman's effort.
"There is no substantive reason or explanation for this unprecedented action," Mr. Decherd said Sunday. "Congressman Armey's misplaced blame of Belo for his son's loss in a recent congressional primary race in Denton County, Texas, is truly unfortunate.
"His misuse of congressional leadership powers for personal retaliation toward Belo is not in keeping with the positive results Congressman Armey has produced for his constituents during his long tenure as a member of the Texas congressional delegation," Mr. Decherd added.
Rep. Chet Edwards, a Waco Democrat who serves on the House military construction appropriations subcommittee, said he objected strongly to the Armey provision's inclusion in the bill, which is expected to speed through Congress as early as this week.
"In my 12 years in Congress, I've never seen a situation as blatantly wrong as this regarding the use of public power to carry out a personal grudge," Mr. Edwards said.
While the measure doesn't mention any media company by name, it appears narrowly drawn to target only Belo.
Company executives who have studied the legislation say it would force Belo to sell one of its three Dallas-area media properties: The News, WFAA (Channel 8) or the Denton Record-Chronicle.
"We are extremely disappointed that Congressman Armey would attempt to use the legislative process and the Federal Communications Commission punitively to harm Belo, its employees, and the many communities that depend on our company," Mr. Decherd said.
Locally and nationally, Belo owns 19 television stations, four daily newspapers and various cable and interactive properties, including Texas Cable News (Channel 38).
"It is totally inappropriate to use the power of the majority leader's office to carry out a personal family vendetta," Mr. Edwards said Sunday. "Mr. Armey has the right to whatever feelings he has toward The Dallas Morning News, but he has no right to try to sneak into a totally unrelated bill an amendment that would put the military construction subcommittee in the middle of a family feud."
Mr. Edwards added: "I respect Mr. Armey, but this is not a good legacy to leave in the final days of his congressional service."
The Armey provision would require the FCC to force divestiture in cases where a media company owns, in a single market, a network-affiliated TV station; a predominant newspaper with Sunday circulation of 750,000 or more that doesn't have a competitor with a Sunday circulation exceeding 350,000; and a second daily newspaper with Sunday circulation of 25,000 or less. Those criteria describe WFAA, The News and the Record-Chronicle.
The News and the Record-Chronicle published articles this year examining Scott Armey's record as Denton County judge. They outlined his votes for contracts benefiting political associates; his work to create a wet precinct for the Texas Motor Speedway despite opposition by the commissioner representing the area; and his help steering nearly $1.3 million in public funds to a Lewisville charity to which he was close.
Scott Armey lost to political newcomer Michael Burgess in the Republican runoff, garnering only 45 percent despite a huge fund-raising advantage, name recognition and support from his father, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and other prominent Republicans.
He has since been appointed by the Bush administration as regional director for the General Services Administration. He could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Scott Armey attributed his loss to low voter turnout, negative campaigning and his role as an "activist" public servant. The elder Mr. Armey blamed the Dallas newspaper, telling Roll Call, a publication that covers Congress, that the coverage was driven by "an outrageous vendetta against me that was focused on my son."
Bob Mong, president and editor of The News, rejected the accusation.
"I would obviously disagree with the congressman's assessment of our work," Mr. Mong said Sunday. "We covered that story for well over a year, and I feel very comfortable with the substance and content of our work.
"I don't believe Scott Armey ever took issue with any of the facts," he added.
A spokesman for Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, said the congressman was unaware of Mr. Armey's action. "This is the first that Martin has heard of this, but he believes that, if accurate, this language has absolutely no business being in the military construction bill," press secretary Greg Speed said. "And he intends to pursue the matter as soon as he returns on Monday."
Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, who sits on the military construction subcommittee, was unaware of Mr. Armey's effort to include the media provision, aides said.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the only other Texan serving on a military construction appropriations subcommittee, had no immediate comment.
Attempts to reach aides to Rep. David Hobson, the Ohio Republican who chairs the military construction appropriations subcommittee, were unsuccessful.
The $10 billion bill is one of only two appropriations bills that Congress is expected to send to President Bush's desk before the November elections making it a prime vehicle for attaching legislation that lawmakers consider must-pass.
It is not uncommon for members of Congress to attempt to attach unrelated amendments to legislation, though the military construction bill historically has been considered a "clean" bill, or free of language that is not germane.
Inclusion of the Armey measure would undermine the legislation, Mr. Edwards said.
"The structure of the telecommunications industry is a legitimate issue, but this is an illegitimate attempt to decree policy in a last-minute, late-night deal on a bill that should be dedicated to improving the quality of life for military families," he said.
The elder Mr. Armey's effort to force divestiture comes as the FCC is considering relaxing media ownership restraints. At issue are six rules that limit media ownership, one of them a 1975 rule that bars companies from owning television stations and newspapers in the same media market.
Belo, which was granted a waiver in 1975 for its Dallas ownership combination, is among the media companies urging the FCC to repeal the cross-ownership rule.
While weighing the ownership issue, the FCC released a series of studies last week finding that Americans have more sources of news and are more diversified news consumers than in the past.
Some consumer groups oppose any relaxation of the rules, saying that would lead to mergers reducing the number of news outlets and the diversity of news sources.
An attempt to use the FCC licensing process as retribution for negative media coverage wouldn't be unprecedented.
During Watergate, associates of President Nixon challenged the Washington Post Co.'s broadcast licenses for two Florida television stations in what Post publisher Katharine Graham interpreted as payback for the newspaper's aggressive coverage of the scandal.
On the 25th anniversary of Watergate, Mrs. Graham said she found it interesting that the 1972 challenge to her Miami station's license came the same month Mr. Nixon said in a recorded Oval Office conversation that the Post would have "damnable, damnable problems" renewing its broadcast licenses.
And it also would be far from the first time that a member of Congress has used the legislative process to inflict punishment.
In another famous case, Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Lufkin, tried to slash the Pentagon's budget after his girlfriend, a former beauty queen, was denied a seat on a Defense Intelligence Agency plane during a 1986 trip to Pakistan.
Belo, AFAIAC, is a classic case of a powerful business complex using its newspaper/TV media to cover/conceal the activites of the other business interests.
It has become clear to me that big media companies are abusing the near-monopoly power they wield within metro areas. I really believe that they are largely responsible for the emergence of the red/blue rural/urban political split.
If we are to have regulation of broadcasting other than to simply ensure broadcasters stay off each others' frequencies, then perhaps something should be done to ensure metro areas hear more than one view from their local media. These local stations and newspapers are the opinion-makers in much of the country, and conservative or libertarian voices are effectively shut out.
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