Politics and Policymaking Clash

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin took hits, but no knockout punches, from both houses of Congress last week as he attempted to wrap up the media ownership proceeding by year end, amidst multiplying threats to that timetable.

A Senate committee voted out legisation to revamp some of the FCC's rulemaking process, while Martin's leadership of the commission was criticized in the House.

Leading Democrats on the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee opposed much of his mission during a hearing, but nobody asked the chairman to postpone a Dec. 18 vote on loosening newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.

During occasionally heated exchanges, the commission chairman defended both his policy and process and, according to at least one industry observer, Martin acquitted himself well.

“I would put it at 60/40 he gets to vote the item,” said the lobbyist, who requested anonymity. Only days earlier he said he thought that Martin might have to put off consideration until next year.

The hearing was one of multiple shots last week at Martin's leadership and policy directions. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) launched an investigation, headed up by commerce's Oversight Subcommittee, into an FCC rulemaking process he described as broken.

The Senate Commerce Committee also passed the Media Ownership Act of 2007, pushed by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), which would require additional public comment on any proposed media ownership rule changes (see below). That bill had some high-profile sponsors, including Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who criticized media consolidation.

“The rules promoting the public interest and diversity in media ownership are too important to allow the FCC chairman to force through an agenda supported by Washington lobbyists that favors corporate interests over the people's interests,” Obama said last week. “Congress cannot continue to allow the FCC to move forward with regulatory changes through leaks to the press and closed-door meetings. This legislation will ensure that any changes to FCC rules will be done through a fully transparent and inclusive process, fully taking into account the interests of our minority communities.”

Heading up the House Oversight Subcommittee investigation is Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) who, during a committee hearing last week, peppered Martin with questions about a series of 10 FCC-released media ownership studies. Stupak said there were questions concerning half of them, which made them unsuitable for justifying ownership changes. Martin defended the studies, but Stupak promised further inquiries.

'Possible Abuse of Power'

Stupak also asserted that complaints about the FCC's procedures—including insufficient notice to commissioners or the public about important items— “indicate possible abuse of power.”

The oversight subcommittee's investigation came in the wake of complaints during the FCC's public meeting last week from both Democrats and Republicans about proposals being released to the press before review by the commissioners, along with a lack of time for public input. Later, Dingell didn't pull any punches: “We have witnessed too much sniping among the five commissioners, and we have heard too many tales of a short-circuited decision-making process. In sum, the FCC appears to be broken.”

Martin defended the process, saying the commission held six media ownership hearings, two localism hearings, ordered 10 studies and received reams of written comment before he proposed the rule change. He further countered that his proposals were conservative compared to the changes proposed by his predecessor.

Martin has proposed allowing co-ownership of TV and radio stations in the top 20 markets, but only for stations that are rated below the top four, and then only if eight independent voices remain. But he has also proposed loosening the wavier criteria that could permit any station or newspaper to combine. Even that might not even be necessary if the Tribune Co. wins the federal court suit it filed last week seeking to overturn the co-ownership prohibition.

Over in the Senate, an aide to Dorgan said there was support on both sides of the aisle for the bill, but he did not have a read on when it might get a vote in the full Senate. The aide said the bill was not merely an attempt to get Martin to back off the Dec. 18 date; he would have to do more than that, the aide said, including opening separate inquiries into diversity and localism.

Martin said last week that the Dec. 18 meeting would likely see votes on several proposals to help minority ownership, including changes to the FCC's wavier policies and financial attribution rules, and other structural changes.

Obama called on Martin to create an independent panel to review media ownership issues. While Martin has said he would welcome such a panel's input, he also said he would not hold up the media ownership proceeding until a panel issued recommendations.

E-mail comments tojeggerton@reedbusiness.com

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.