House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) alleged Wednesday that the nation's largest Spanish-speaking television network, Univision Communications, is seeking to secure federal approval of its $2.4 billion merger with a Hispanic radio firm by airing an increasing amount of programming that supports President Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to a key federal appeals court post.
Menendez, along with other Hispanic Democrat, who strongly oppose the Estrada nomination, say they have been consistently denied the chance to speak out against the nomination on Univision programs. Univision stopped requesting interviews, the Democrats charge, at the request of the White House.
"We were essentially shut out," charged Menendez, the third ranking Democrat in the House and a member of the Hispanic Caucus. "I believe the White House clearly made calls into Univision."
Univision spokeswoman Stephanie Pillersdorf sharply denied the charge. "This is purely a smear campaign," she said.
"His political views are as irrelevant as those of Michael Eisner, Jeff Immelt and Sumner Redstone."
Still, the allegation is the latest example of how supporters of the merger and its opponents — led by Spanish Broadcasting System — are pulling any political string they can to prevail at the Federal Communications Commission.
At issue is the FCC's review of a $2.4-billion merger between Univision, the nation's largest Hispanic television network, and Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., a leading owner of Spanish-speaking radio stations.
Opponents of the merger say the combined company would control 70 percent of the Hispanic television and radio landscape.
The Justice Department approved the deal earlier this year, and the FCC is expected to act within the month.
Univision claims the two companies would have a tiny market share in the overall U.S. television market. They also say that the two Hispanic media companies need to combine to have the market power to compete against the largest English-speaking networks.
"I am one who has a great concern with media concentration," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), another member of the Hispanic Caucus. "On the other hand, Hispanic-language media has to be elevated so it is no longer treated as a stepchild to larger English-speaking networks."
Becerra said he sees merits in both arguments and has decided to remain neutral. Like Becerra, the head of the Caucus' telecommunications task force, the overall Caucus decided not to take a stand on the merger because the Hispanic lawmakers were unable to resolve that dilemma.
As is often the case in Washington, however, the merger has mostly boiled down to a battle over politics as much as policy.
SBS charges that Univision has won a favorable audience in the Bush administration because its chairman, Jerry Perenchio, an Italian-American, is a well-connected Republican who gave $400,000 to former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
As the nation's second-largest radio owner, SBC also says the merger would pair Univision and media giant Clear Channel Communications, which owns 30 percent of the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp.
Clear Channel is owned by Lowry Mays, another non-Hispanic Republican who strongly supports the Bush administration.
"If a Clear Channel-Univision merger is approved, independent Hispanic-station owners across the country face a future of being devoured or crushed by a monopoly controlled by two non-Hispanic media czars — Lowry Mays and Jerry Perenchio," says an ad paid for by an alliance of merger foes.
Univision counters that Clear Channel would have a mere 3 percent voting interest in the combined company.
Meanwhile, SBS has relied on a little-known Hispanic group — the National Hispanic Policy Institute — and several well-connected lobbyists to press its case.
The National Hispanic Policy Institute, run by New York state Sen. Efrain Gonzalez (D), has placed print ads in Capitol Hill newspapers charging that the merger would create a unstoppable behemoth in the Spanish-speaking media that would drive out all other competitors, like Spanish Broadcasting System.
Univision has hired its own lobbying team and fired back with its own ad raising questions about the policy institute and declaring, "The Hispanic Community Deserves the Truth."
On the lobbying front, SBS and opponents of the merger rely on the Alexander Strategies Group, a lobbying shop stocked with former House Republican aides.
Merger opponents have also hired Michael Hutton, a former top aide to Menendez who left the Hill earlier this year, and P.C. Koch, a Republican lobbyist whose brother is married to President Bush's sister.
Menendez was the only member of the Hispanic Caucus to go public with allegations that Univision has blocked Democrats from airing their complaints about the Estrada nomination. Several other House Democrats supported Menendez's complaints but refused to go on the record with the charges.
Univision ardently denies that its programming is affected by the pending merger proposal.
Pillersdorf, the Univision spokeswoman, said that Perenchio has no control over Univision content. "These are absolute lies that the National Hispanic Policy Institute has been publishing," she said.
Late last year, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. hired one of Washington's most connected lobbying firms, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, to help speed approval of the deal.
At the same time, Barbour, Griffith was one of the leading supporters of Estrada.
Months earlier, its partners — all Republicans — helped found a front group to fund advertisements supporting Estrada's nomination, which has been blocked by Democrats for nearly a year.
The group, the Committee for Justice, leases office space from Barbour, Griffith and several of the firm's employees also work for the committee, according to committee spokesman Sean Rushton.
Earlier this year partners Haley Barbour and Ed Rogers helped organize a fundraiser to raise money for the group.
However, Rushton said the pro-Estrada organization does not take its cues from Barbour, Griffith's lobbying clients.
"The Committee for Justice is not in communication with Univision or the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation on this issue," he said.
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