Democrats Urge Tighter FCC Rules

Kevin J. Martin said
Kevin J. Martin said "robust" private competition is the best guardian of the public interest on the airwaves. (Chris Kleponis - Bloomberg News)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

Senate Democrats pressed the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission yesterday to slap tighter controls on media ownership, public-interest broadcasting and television violence.

Several Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee warned the agency not to try to relax limits on the number of media outlets one company can own, as the FCC did in 2003 only to have a federal court stay the action. Recent FCC policies on media ownership, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), have been "a spectacular failure."

He railed against rules that allow one entity to own eight radio stations in a large city and against proposals to allow one owner to have three TV stations in a city. "More concentration means less competition," Dorgan said. "The public-interest standards have been nearly completely emasculated."

But FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has close ties to the Bush White House, defended the agency's policies.

"The commission has tried to make decisions based on a fundamental belief that a robust, competitive marketplace, not regulation, is ultimately the greatest protector of the public interest," Martin said. He told Dorgan, "I'm not convinced yet we need to have the kind of requirements" for local TV and radio programming that some advocates have championed.

Flexing their muscles at Congress's first oversight hearing of the FCC since taking control of the House and Senate last month, Democrats lectured and sometimes scolded FCC members, saying the agency needs more teeth in its regulation of broadcast outlets, telephones, the Internet and other services.

"The change of this last election," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), "is that there's going to be a lot more attention on the FCC. . . . It has abandoned its core responsibility to the public interest."

While the two-hour hearing didn't result in any mandates, it was more than a rhetorical venting, said Tamara Lipper, a spokeswoman for Martin.

"The commissioners are informed by the hearings," she said, and the lawmakers' comments "become part of the record."

As such, scores of lobbyists and interest group members filled long hallways and stairwells in the Russell Senate Office Building before crowding into an overflow room to watch the proceedings on TV monitors. The FCC's two Democratic commissioners often endorsed the senators' complaints, while their three GOP colleagues gently pushed back.

Democratic Commissioner Michael J. Copps told Dorgan that the FCC needs tougher requirements for broadcast outlets seeking license renewals and more detailed descriptions of locally produced content that would serve "the public interest."

Rockefeller called on the agency to put more pressure on cable and broadcast TV outlets to reduce the amount of televised violence. "Commercial television is in the worst state I've ever seen," he said.

Even sharper was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who questioned whether Martin had aggressively looked into "the suppression" of two reports -- drafted by FCC staff members -- that reflected badly on the agency's media-ownership policies. "A culture of secrecy is still pervasive at the FCC," Boxer said.

Martin, whose voice never rose above a soft drawl, said he made all the documents public as soon as he learned of them last fall.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company