Armey Tries to Make Belo Sell


If you're going to accuse a member of Congress of committing a foul, it's smart politics to pick a lame duck.

A simmering feud between Texas-based Belo Corp. and retiring Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas) burst onto the public stage last week, when Belo accused the lawmaker of misuse of power by attempting to inflict regulatory harm on the media company.

Belo, based in Dallas, is a $1.3 billion company that owns 19 television stations, four newspapers and six cable news channels.

Armey is the majority leader, the highest-ranking member of the House after the speaker. But he's retiring this year after nine terms in office; thus, he has only a few more days to settle his score with Belo.

According to both sides, Armey sought House passage of a provision that would have required the company to sell one of its key media assets in Dallas. In the Dallas market, Belo owns ABC-TV affiliate WFAA, The Dallas Morning News
and the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Major media outlets reported that Armey's purpose was to exact revenge against Belo's daily newspapers. When he opted to retire this year, his politically active son, Scott, ran in the GOP primary to replace him, but lost to a political novice.

'DMN' stories

The Armey side reportedly attributed Scott's loss to articles in Belo's Dallas Morning News, which alleged that Scott, 33, had used his position as a top official in Denton County to hand out jobs and consulting contracts to cronies.

Armey spokesman Dan Crist said the lawmaker was not engaging in payback for his son's loss, but acting based on deeply held convictions about media concentration, particularly in the newspaper industry.

"That is a personal accusation that is dreamt up only in the confines of the [Belo] organization," Crist said of the revenge theory. "[Armey] has talked about this issue in a number of venues and in a number of ways."

But Belo wasn't dreaming about the impact of Armey's proposed legislation had it become law. In a nutshell, the amendment would have forced Belo to sell the Dallas TV station or one of the Dallas-area newspapers within seven months.

"It does apply to the North Dallas region, which is controlled by one company — Belo," Crist acknowledged.

Pulled amendment

Armey had hoped to include the amendment in a $10 billion military construction-spending bill. But when word of Armey's attempt to rattle Belo became public, some members of Congress complained that a media amendment to a defense-spending bill violated budget rules, and Armey decided to withdraw it.

A Capitol Hill stereotype is one of the lawmaker who sneaks legislation in to help a campaign contributor or business interest back home. In the Belo case, the stereotype was reversed, causing an angry reaction from the company's chief.

"[Rep.] Armey's misplaced blame of Belo for his son's loss in a recent congressional primary race in Denton County, Texas, is truly unfortunate," Belo CEO Robert Decherd said in a prepared statement. "His misuse of congressional leadership powers for personal retaliation toward Belo is not in keeping with the positive results [Rep.] Armey has produced for his constituents during his long tenure."

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits the common ownership of a TV station and a newspaper in the same market. Because Belo's ownership of WFAA and The Dallas Morning News
predated the FCC's 1975 adoption of the rule, the agency did not require divestment at that time.

The FCC is now reviewing the rule — along with many more media-ownership restrictions — with an eye toward relaxing or abolishing it.

Before time runs out this Congress, Armey intends to look for other legislation to which he can attach his Belo amendment.

"The majority leader is always going to look for ways to move this sensible measure through the Congress," Crist said.

In practical terms, Armey is running out of time. Congress is expected to adjourn by Oct. 18. But it's possible Congress might return after the Nov. 5 elections to complete work on several spending measures.