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Bush's Four Horsemen

By William Safire
New York Times Op-Ed Columnist

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WASHINGTON -- On the domestic front, President Bush is backing into a buzz saw.

The sleeper issue is media giantism. People are beginning to grasp and resent the attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to allow the Four Horsemen of Big Media Viacom (CBS, UPN), Disney (ABC), Murdoch's News Corporation (Fox) and G.E. (NBC) to gobble up every independent station in sight.

Couch potatoes throughout the land see plenty wrong in concentrating the power to produce the content we see and hear in the same hands that transmit those broadcasts. This is especially true when the same Four Horsemen own many satellite and cable providers and already influence key sites on the Internet.

Reflecting that widespread worry, the Senate Commerce Committee voted last month to send to the floor Ted Stevens's bill rolling back the F.C.C.'s anything-goes ruling. It would reinstate current limits and also deny newspaper chains the domination of local TV and radio.

The Four Horsemen were confident they could get Bush to suppress a similar revolt in the House, where G.O.P. discipline is stricter. When liberals and conservatives of both parties in the House surprised them by passing a rollback amendment to an Appropriations Committee bill, the Bush administration issued what bureaucrats call a SAP a written Statement of Administration Policy.

It was the sappiest SAP of the Bush era. "If this amendment were contained in the final legislation presented to the President," warned the administration letter, "his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill."

The SAP was signed by the brand-new director of the Office of Management and Budget, Joshua Bolten, but the hand was the hand of Stephen Friedman, the former investment banker now heading the president's National Economic Council.

Reached late yesterday, Friedman forthrightly made his case that the F.C.C. was an independent agency that had followed the rules laid down by the courts. He told me that Bush's senior advisers had focused on the question "Can you eliminate excessive regulation and have diversity and competition?" and found the answer to be yes. He added with candor: "The politics I'm still getting an education on."

The Bush veto threat would deny funding to the Commerce, State and Justice Departments, not to mention the federal judiciary. It would discombobulate Congress and disserve the public for months.

And to what end? To turn what we used to call "public airwaves" into private fiefs, to undermine diversity of opinion and in its anti-federalist homogenization of our varied culture to sweep aside local interests and community standards of taste.

This would be Bush's first veto. Is this the misbegotten principle on which he wants to take a stand? At one of the White House meetings that decided on the SAP approach, someone delicately suggested that such a veto of the giants' power grab might pose "a communications issue" for the president (no play on words intended). Friedman blew that objection away. The SAP threat was delivered.

In the House this week, allies of the Four Horsemen distributed a point sheet drawn from Viacom and Murdoch arguments and asked colleagues to sign a cover letter reading, "The undersigned members . . . will vote to sustain a Presidential veto of legislation overturning or delaying . . . the decision of the FCC . . . regarding media ownership."

But they couldn't obtain the signatures of anywhere near one-third of the House members the portion needed to stop an override. Yesterday afternoon, the comprehensive bill including an F.C.C. rollback passed by a vote of 400 to 21.

If Bush wishes to carry out the veto threat, he'll pick up a bunch of diehards (now called "dead-enders"), but he will risk suffering an unnecessary humiliation.

What next? Much depends on who is chosen to go into the Senate-House conference. If the White House can't stop the rollback there, will Bush carry out the ill-considered threat?

Sometimes you put the veto gun back in the holster. The way out: a president can always decide to turn down the recommendation of his senior advisers.

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