FCC's New Standards-Bearer

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005

President Bush has chosen Kevin J. Martin, one of the Federal Communication Commission's leaders in the crackdown on indecency, to succeed the agency's outgoing chairman, Michael K. Powell, the White House said yesterday.

Martin, 38, is one of the FCC's three Republican commissioners and has been considered the front-runner to head the agency, which is the government's chief regulator of the media and telecommunications industries. He does not require Senate confirmation because he already is a commission member.

Powell, the son of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, leaves the FCC's top job this week after four years.

Martin and Powell sometimes clashed on issues of policy and style, with Martin most notably splitting with the agency's two other Republicans during a 2003 vote on local telephone competition because he wanted to preserve a strong role for state regulators.

"I look forward to working with the administration, Congress, my colleagues and the FCC's talented staff to ensure that American consumers continue to enjoy the benefits of the best communications system in the world," Martin said in a statement. He declined to comment further.

Martin's appointment and his generally deregulatory agenda were greeted positively by industry groups, including the cable and broadcast lobbies.

"We look forward to continuing to work closely with Chairman Martin to maintain a deregulatory environment for competitive telecommunications services," Kyle E. McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in a statement.

However, some public-interest and artists groups, such as Massachusetts-based Free Press and the District's Center for Digital Democracy, expressed concern. The FCC under Martin is likely to be more active on indecency than under Powell, who proposed more than $4 million in fines over the past four years, more than all other former FCC chairmen combined. Martin often said that indecency fines proposed in the past year were too low, and he called for broadcasters to be fined for each utterance or depiction of indecent material within a program.

"Mr. Martin has consistently advocated expanded government regulation of broadcast program content," allowing the definition of what constitutes indecency to become "unacceptably" vague, said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.

Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy for Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, said he is optimistic that Martin will keep an open mind.

"Kevin Martin has always been much more pragmatic, even when he agreed with Powell's philosophy," Kimmelman said.

The agency currently is considering an appeal by Fox Broadcasting Co. to overturn a $1.2 million fine proposed against 169 Fox stations for broadcasting an April 2003 episode of the since-canceled show "Married by America" featuring digitally obscured nudity and whipped-cream-covered strippers that the FCC ruled was indecent.

Also under review: An investigation of a December 2003 live Fox awards show in which actress Nicole Richie uttered two profanities.

"The FCC has been delinquent in its stewardship of the public airwaves," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, whose members have flooded the FCC with indecency complaints in recent years. "This irresponsibility must stop, and with the leadership of chairman Martin, we are confident it will."

In addition to indecency, Martin has been a strong proponent of lifting a 30-year-old prohibition on one company owning a newspaper and television station in the same city. The commissioner backed a move to eliminate the "cross-ownership" ban as part of the proposed media ownership rules passed by the FCC in 2003 and later thrown out by a federal court.

Martin, a former lawyer with telecom powerhouse Wiley, Rein & Fielding LLP, has close ties to the White House, having served as deputy general counsel to the 2000 Bush campaign. His wife, Catherine, works in Vice President Cheney's office. He is a former University of North Carolina student body president and Harvard Law graduate, and was appointed to the FCC in 2001.

With Martin's elevation to chairman and Powell's exit, a Republican seat opens on the five-member commission. Earl W. Comstock, former counsel to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), is considered a strong contender, along with Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the president's principal adviser on telecommunication policies.

Both may land on the commission, however, if the third Republican commissioner, Kathleen Q. Abernathy, chooses to step down later this year. Democratic commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein recently was reappointed to a five-year term, and fellow Democrat Michael J. Copps, whose term expires in June, is being pushed for renomination by Stevens.

Kevin J. Martin, left, was chosen by President Bush to replace Michael K. Powell, right, as FCC chairman. Some groups expressed concern about his anti-indecency stance. Cable and broadcast lobbies, in general, were warm to his selection.

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