FCC’s Martin braces for fight on new media ownership rules

Key members of Congress argue that the chairman should be spending his time dealing with the DTV transition.
FCC chairman Martin is looking to change a rule that forbids a company to own both a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same city and ease restrictions on the number of radio and TV stations a company could own in the same market.

Rejecting pleas from both Republican and Democrat leaders, FCC chairman Kevin Martin has vowed to ram through new media ownership rules at the FCC’s meeting on Tuesday.

Key members of Congress are angry with Martin, arguing that he should be spending his time dealing with the DTV transition. However, the FCC chairman vowed last week to push his proposal to relax the rules in the 20 largest U.S. media markets, allowing newspaper publishers in those markets to own either a TV or a radio station.

Fellow FCC commissioners and anticonsolidation consumer groups have relentlessly hammered Martin for trying to rush the item ahead without examining the affect consolidation might have on other issues, such as broadcast public service obligations and minority ownership of broadcast stations.

At a contentious Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week, Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, argued that Martin’s loosening of the ownership rules is the last thing the FCC should do, especially in light of the fact that minority ownership of media is already far too low. “As markets become more concentrated, concentration has the effect of making it harder for smaller stations to compete,” Kerry said.

Kerry also questioned why Martin is using statistics of staff losses at newspapers to justify policy changes at a government agency whose mandate is to regulate broadcasting and serve the public interest. “It would seem you would want to represent the American people’s interest, not the interest of [media companies],” Kerry told Martin.

“We have an obligation to make sure that local newsgathering is robust,” Martin said. “That includes ensuring a balance of independent voices in the local community.”

That prompted a comeback from Martin’s key FCC critic. “We are not the Federal Newspaper Commission,” said Michael J. Copps, a commission Democrat and opponent of loosening ownership rules.

Martin, who remained steadfast under three hours of grilling, argued that it may be impossible to achieve consensus on the issue of media ownership and that the FCC is under court and congressional order to keep its media ownership rules up to date.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, asked Martin why he was putting FCC resources into lifting the cross-ownership ban while failing to educate the public and aid broadcasters on the DTV transition. She also suggested, in light of the bipartisan opposition to his initiative, that he delay the vote. “You are a remarkable public leader if you move ahead and do it. You are a braver man than I am,” she said.

Martin has little Republican support in Congress, with both Sen. Trent Lott, R-MS, and Ted Stevens, R-AK, harshly criticizing his tactics. However, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI, the powerful Commerce Committee chairman, carried a bigger stick and threatened to overhaul the FCC next year and possibly limit the terms of the commissioners.

Inouye backed Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, who complained of FCC leadership with a lack of transparency, politically motivated suppression of studies and insufficient opportunity for public comment. He warned that an upcoming FCC reauthorization bill will address those complaints along with a new look at the terms of commissioners. “I can assure you it will be done,” Inouye concurred.

To add to the building pressure on FCC members, Sen. Lott noted that there are pending nominations for two sitting FCC commissioners: Democrat Jonathan Adelstein and Republican Deborah Tate.

Though Lott had high praise for Adelstein, he said he hoped Tate will help keep the other Republican commissioners in line on this week’s vote. It was a subtle, but stark reminder that only a single senator can block a commissioner’s renomination to the FCC.