Perhaps the most contentious issue in media, the FCC’s ownership rules, flared up again last week in the continuing battle between FCC chairman Kevin Martin, his commission colleagues and members of Congress.
Martin took heat from both Republican and Democrat members of the House, who criticized his policies, tactics and even his ability to lead the FCC. Legislators said he rushed to decisions, used flawed data, and ran roughshod over fellow commission members by not giving them adequate time and data to respond to his proposals.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-MI, head of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, announced that he would lead an investigation of Martin’s management at the FCC, citing a potential abuse of power.
Most of the heat came over Martin’s proposal to change a current rule so that companies could own a newspaper and TV or radio broadcast station in the 20 largest U.S. markets. He told members of a House subcommittee that his cross-ownership plan, on which he has scheduled a Dec. 18 vote, would aid financially strapped newspapers.
However, legislators from both parties, as well as the two Democrat members of the FCC, called on Martin to delay the Dec. 18 vote until more information is accumulated and public comments are reviewed.
“The chairman’s plan would benefit from more time so that the public and Congress can seek clarification over several provisions that remain ambiguous or vague,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, chairman of the subcommittee. Martin’s proposal could accelerate consolidation and hurt minority representation in the media, he added.
Martin described his proposed rule change as a “minor loosening” of the 35-year-old ban on cross-ownership. The change “may help forestall the erosion in local news coverage” by allowing companies to pool the costs of newsgathering, he said.
However, Michael J. Copps, Martin’s chief adversary on the commission, had few kind words for the chairman, on media ownership issues or much of anything else. “The FCC is lurching dangerously off course, and I fear at this point only congressional oversight can put us back on track,” he told the subcommittee, referring to both the media ownership policy and the way the agency is run.
Amidst growing evidence of internal strife at the FCC, even Republican commissioner Robert M. McDowell, criticized Martin, telling lawmakers that he and other commissioners did not receive necessary FCC data from the chairman until the night before a critical meeting.
Rep. John D. Dingell, D-MI, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, also took on Martin. “We have witnessed too much sniping among the five commissioners, and we have heard too many tales of a short-circuited decision-making process,” Dingell said. “The FCC appears to be broken.”
In a related action, a Senate committee last week approved legislation by Sens. Trent Lott, R-MS, and Byron Dorgan, D-ND, that would halt any cross-ownership changes for at least six months. Dorgan said Martin “needs to follow a fair process, examine the impact of his proposal on localism and diversity of ownership, and let the public be heard.”
However, the bill probably won’t pass the full Senate before the scheduled Dec. 18 vote.