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Martin Returns Fire at Hill Hearing

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin took the opportunity of a Hill hearing Wednesday to respond to a number of criticisms that have been leveled at his running of the commission.

Asked whether it was inconsistent to maintain the 30% cap on cable-subscriber ownership, as an FCC majority supports, while allowing telephone companies to merge and seeking to loosen broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rules, Martin said no, that he was proposing maintaining the current caps on local and national radio and TV ownership, as well, confining deregulation to the cross-ownership ban that a court has already agreed the FCC has justified modifying.

Martin published his proposal to loosen the cross-ownership ban in an op-ed in The New York Times only one business day after a Seattle public hearing at which some witnesses weighed in on the cross-ownership issue in general.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), saying that Martin owed his constituents an apology, did not ask for that apology, but he did ask the chairman whether he had already come up with a draft of his op-ed before listening to those witnesses. Martin said he was probably working on one on the plane.

But asked whether he had been required to give that proposal additional comment time per the administrative procedures act, Martin said no, that the cross-ownership issue had gotten comment starting back when the current rule review was an initiative 18 months ago, and that if the commission had to put out each order or iteration, it would become a revolving door through which such orders would not get to pass at all.

He said he had been urged by some in Congress and at the commission to publicize his proposal, and that was what he did.

Asked why the FCC had not sufficiently addressed the lack of minority media ownership -- Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said, "Media ownership delayed is media ownership denied," echoing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- Martin said he proposed a number of changes to the other commissioners that would get voted on at the Dec. 18 meeting (, including changes to its wavier policy, structural rules and attribution rules that would make it easier for minorities to get into the business.

While commissioners and legislators all agreed that more needed to be done to spur minority ownership, the commission Democrats argued that the chairman's definition of who qualifies for the changes could actually result in hurting minority ownership.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein argued that including small businesses in the definition without adding the caveat of "economically disadvantaged" could effectively gut the perceived gains to minorities.

Martin also bristled at a suggestion from Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that there were problems with the 10 media studies the FCC commissioned as part of its media-ownership review, saying that they had been commissioned with input solicited from other commissioners -- although he said only one offered the names of potential authors -- and were subjected to peer review.

On the concerns about process raised, Martin argued that he had approached the media-ownership issue collegially and had provided ample access for public comment. Asked what would help to improve the process, he said allowing more than two commissioners to meet outside of public meetings, as is currently prohibited by sunshine laws.

In a rare moment of agreement, Democratic commissioner Michael Copps seconded that, although he had many other bones to pick with the process, including what he saw as a lack of sufficient notice for the public hearings.