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Civil-Rights Groups Miffed at Martin’s Response

"We have not been purchased by the cable industry," said Lillian Rodriguez-Lopez, president of the Hispanic Federation, warning Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin to be "very, very careful what he quotes publicly."

To say that some civil-rights groups were not persuaded by Martin's response to their complaint about his comments on a la carte cable at an Aspen Institute media conference would be an understatement.

In a call with reporters Thursday, the heads of three of those groups, including Rodriguez-Lopez, attacked the FCC chairman, saying that his apology in a letter to them wasn't an apology, that he was trying to marginalize their arguments and that his agenda was driven by the religious right's fear of diverse content.

Martin's office had no comment at press time, but in his letter to the groups, he pointed out that the Consumers Union, Free Press and the Communications Workers of America -- hardly right-wing groups -- had backed a more a la carte cable regime.

Martin has been pushing cable to deliver a la carte programming as a way to decrease cable bills and increase parental control over sexual and violent content, but also arguing that a la carte would increase, not decrease, diverse programming.

Manny Mirabal, co-chair of the Hispanics in Telecommunications and Technology Partnership, said his group recognizes the indecency concern, but a la carte as a cure would be "worse than the disease."

Dr. E Fay Williams, chair of the National Congress of Black Women, said Martin had no track record of advancing diversity issues and that his a la carte stance was "little more than pandering to the religious wing of the far right."

Rodriguez-Lopez agreed, calling Martin's support of a la carte as a route to programming diversity "a sham" and an opportunity for "a few right-wing groups to censor programming."

Martin could take some issue with the track-record comment, given that at the same Aspen Institute speech, he pointed out that he had proposed allowing broadcasters to lease some of their excess digital-spectrum capacity to minority- and women-owned businesses to provide a new outlet for diverse programming.

The civil-rights groups had sent a letter to Martin in response to comments he had made after a speech to the Aspen Institute. In response to a question about opposition to a la carte, Martin referenced a Center for Public Integrity study that concluded that "grassroots" opposition to a la carte, including from minority groups, had been an orchestrated lobbying campaign by nonprofits "showered" with money from the cable industry.

Rodriguez-Lopez, Williams and Mirabal all said the cable industry had contributed money to them, but all said it was 1% or less of their budget, adding that they had a long track record on weighing in on telecommunications issues.

They want Martin to retract the study reference, saying that it was an attempt to marginalize them and their arguments by suggesting that they could not think for themselves and that their advocacy had been bought by corporate interests.

Martin said in his letter to the groups that he was sorry if his comments had led them to believe he did not respect and appreciate their views.

Mirabal said the criticism of the group's corporate fundng was ironic since he had been invited numerous times to the Aspen Institute to talk about corporate citizenship and how not enough companies were contributing to groups like his taking positions on issues they cared about.

Rodriguez-Lopez said that there had been a pattern in Washington of marginalizing minority groups, suggesting that over the past four or five years, when they advocated for their positions on the Hill and elsewhere, they were being portrayed as in the pocket of industry, "implying that we aren’t intelligent enough to understand or articulate the arguments.”

She added that her group takes money from many different sources, but, "If there is a reason to take a view that something will be harmful, we will do it irrespective of who is funding us and in what amount."

The groups also complained that the FCC's committee on diversity in the digital age has only held one meeting so far this year. "More meetings would be helpful," Rodriguez-Lopez said.