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FCC Under Investigation by House Subcommittee

The Federal Communications Commission is being investigated by the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations prompted by criticisms of the FCC's processes and what Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) described as a "breakdown in proper procedure."

Dingell informed FCC chairman Kevin Martin and the other commissioners in a letter Monday of the committee's concerns and the subcommittee's inquiry, saying that he wanted the chairman to commit to publishing proposed rules in advance of commission meetings, then allow for "sufficient time to review" the rules and give other commissioners "all of the relevant information on which proposed orders and rules are based."

If Martin agreed, it would force him to postpone a planned Dec. 18 vote on a proposed loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.

Dingell is holding a hearing Dec. 5 on that and other issues, where Martin is expected to come in for some tough criticism for his push for the Dec. 18 vote. And the Senate Commerce Committee is marking up a bill Dec. 4 that would also block the Dec. 18 vote by legislating such notice of proposed rules and time for public comment.

Martin has said recently that his media-ownership-rule revise would begin and end at loosening broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership, so the vote would essentially close the FCC’s court- and Congress-mandated rule review and a more-than-10-year look at what to do about cross-ownership rules.

Martin pointed out that his proposal does not include the other deregulatory moves his predecessor proposed. Hill Democrats have countered that he is rushing the vote without sufficiently gauging the impact of the current deregulation on localism and diversity, saying that if that impact is detrimental, even a little more deregulation is too much.

Oversight Subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said he received complaints from the public and communications professionals about the "breakdowns," which, he added, "indicate possible abuse of power and an attempt to intentionally keep fellow commissioners in the dark."

Dingell's letter came after Democratic and even Republican FCC commissioners complained last week about the lack of disclosure of items and sufficient public comment period for items proposed by the chairman. Martin said last week that he took the criticism under advisement, but he pointed out that he had given three weeks’ notice for all items on the agenda for the November meeting, many of which he had proposed to the commissioners months ago.

“Free Press applauds chairman Dingell for holding the FCC accountable for conducting a fair public policymaking process,” policy director Ben Scott said. “The issue of media ownership is far too important to the American people to be subjected to one-sided research, a rigged process and a pre-determined outcome. The lack of transparency in FCC matters has left the public with little faith that the agency is acting in their best interest. We welcome this investigation and hope it will force the agency to base its broadcast-ownership rules on the facts -- facts that have been obscured by procedural shenanigans.”