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Armey punishes paper { October 8 2002 }

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Armey Seeks Provision in Bill To Punish Hometown Paper

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 8, 2002; Page A04

Furious at how the Dallas Morning News covered his son's failed congressional bid this year, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) is trying to insert language in a military spending bill that would force the newspaper's parent company to sell off one of its Dallas media properties.

Armey privately asked Republican lawmakers to place a provision in this year's military construction bill that would make Belo Corp., which owns the Dallas Morning News as well as the Denton Record-Chronicle and WFAA-TV of Dallas, shed one of its properties. The maneuver, which was first reported Monday in the Dallas Morning News, has sparked protests among Democrats and Republicans.

While lawmakers frequently use must-pass spending bills as a vehicle to attach special-interest provisions, Armey this time is unlikely to succeed. House and Senate negotiators plan to complete work on the military construction bill this afternoon, and House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said they have no intention of including the majority leader's language because it would violate Senate rules.

"We have no intention of including extraneous provisions in this bill," Scofield said. "It's too important to the quality of life for our troops to get bogged down in a non-military matter."

Even Texas GOP colleague Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison opposes Armey's measure. "Nobody wants to kill the military construction bill," said her spokeswoman, Lisette McSoud Mondello.

Even if Armey fails to punish Belo for its news coverage, however, his move reflects a broader unease among lawmakers who fear corporate ownership of news outlets hurts their ability to communicate with constituents. The prospect of new campaign finance rules has only fueled these politicians' anxieties, because they say they fear the media may become even more powerful once parties are no longer able to finance campaign ads.

Terry Holt, Armey's spokesman, said the congressman hoped to "send a signal" to Belo that it needed to provide more balanced coverage in its political reporting. "In America, the press is responsible for informing the public and providing a forum for free debate," Holt said. "In this case, this particular corporation has almost a stranglehold on Mr. Armey's constituency in Mr. Armey's district."

The dispute between Armey and Belo stems from the Dallas Morning News' reporting on his son Scott, a former Denton County judge who hoped to succeed his father but lost in an April 9 GOP primary runoff. Armey said the newspaper engaged in "vicious unprofessionalism" with a series of articles this year critical of his son's judicial record, and since his son's loss he has refused to speak with Belo reporters.

Scott Armey said he was unsure whether his father's proposal would improve the Morning News' reporting, but said it was fair to say the managing editor and a handful of reporters were "intentionally trying to determine the outcome of an election" this spring by publishing articles that implied he "was corrupt."

The paper's top editors could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Armey's provision calls on the Federal Communications Commission to force any media company to divest one outlet if, in a single market, it owns a newspaper with a Sunday circulation of 750,000 or more that lacks a competitor with a Sunday circulation above 350,000; owns another daily with a Sunday circulation of 25,000 or less, and a network-affiliated TV station.

Holt said the measure was specifically crafted to affect Belo but not any other media company.

Belo's chairman, Robert W. Decherd issued a statement Sunday criticizing the move. "Congressman Armey's misplaced blame of Belo for his son's loss in a recent congressional primary in Denton County, Texas, is truly unfortunate," Decherd said. "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."

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who informed Belo of Armey's plans this weekend, called the move "absolutely outrageous."

"It's inappropriate, wrong and unethical," Edwards said. "This bill is designed to improve the quality of life of military families, not to carry out a personal family feud. Mr. Armey has had a lot of fine moments in his congressional career, but this not one of them."

But Holt said lawmakers had to be particularly vigilant with the press because after the Nov. 5 election, political parties will not be able to spend millions on paid media on behalf of congressional candidates. "As part of campaign finance reform, the role of the media will be much, much greater than in the past," he said. Some lawmakers, while unwilling to defend Armey's move, said Congress needs to be more vigilant about guarding against media consolidation. The FCC is considering whether to relax federal rules concerning media cross-ownership and multiple ownership, as part of a process they must undergo every two years.

Ken Ferree, who heads the FCC's media bureau, said yesterday that while some suspect that commission officials are determined to make it easier for large conglomerates to buy up local media outlets, "There's no preordained conclusion to this."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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