FCC Chairman Draws Fire for Cross-Ownership Plan

Agency Chairman Kevin J. Martin said his ownership plan might
Agency Chairman Kevin J. Martin said his ownership plan might "help forestall the erosion in local news coverage." (By Joe Marquette -- Bloomberg News)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin faced sharp questions yesterday from Republican and Democratic members of a House oversight committee about his plan to loosen a rule restricting media ownership.

Bipartisan lawmakers also questioned Martin's leadership of the FCC, criticizing him for rushing to decisions, using flawed data and not giving other commissioners time to respond to his proposals on contentious issues.

Two Republican ranking members, Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), supported Martin's proposal, saying the current cross-ownership ban is unnecessary with the proliferation of new media outlets, such as satellite TV and Internet news services.

Martin, a Republican, drew the most intense fire for his proposal to alter a rule so that companies could own a newspaper and TV or radio broadcast station in the 20 largest U.S. markets. Martin told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet that the cross-ownership plan would help struggling newspapers.

But several bipartisan lawmakers and the two Democratic members of the FCC said Martin should delay the vote, scheduled for Dec. 18, until more information and public comments can be reviewed.

"The chairman's plan would benefit from more time so that the public and Congress can seek clarification over several provisions that remain ambiguous or vague," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee. He said he is concerned that Martin's proposal could accelerate consolidation and hurt minority representation in the media.

Martin characterized the change as a "minor loosening" of the 35-year-old ban on cross-ownership and defended the policy as a move that "may help forestall the erosion in local news coverage" by letting companies share news-gathering costs. He added that each market would be evaluated on an individual basis and that the hurdle would be high for the rule to take effect in smaller cities.

But Democratic Commissioner Michael J. Copps said at the hearing that the test Martin has proposed to determine whether smaller-market newspapers and TV stations are eligible to merge is too weak and sets the stage for further media consolidation.

"The FCC is lurching dangerously off course, and I fear at this point only congressional oversight can put us back on track," he said, referring to both the media ownership policy and the way the agency is run.

Separately, a Senate committee yesterday approved legislation that would halt any cross-ownership changes for at least six months. It is unlikely the bill will pass Congress before the FCC votes on the issue in two weeks, according to congressional staff members.

At yesterday's hearing, lawmakers also trained their sights on complaints about procedure at Martin's increasingly divided agency.

"We have witnessed too much sniping among the five commissioners, and we have heard too many tales of a short-circuited decision-making process," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "The FCC appears to be broken."

That followed an announcement Monday from Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), head of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, who said he would lead an investigation of Martin's management of the agency, citing potential abuse of power.

Fellow commissioners criticized Martin at last week's commission meeting, which was delayed nearly 12 hours by internal sparring over a report on cable competition. Martin had circulated a report that showed the cable TV industry had enough subscribers to warrant additional regulation. But other data, including the FCC's own analysis, concluded that the cable industry had not yet met a critical threshold that would trigger the additional regulation.

Commissioners Robert M. McDowell, a Republican, and Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat, said they did not receive the FCC's data until the night before the meeting. Adelstein suggested Martin had withheld the data in order to push his own agenda for cable companies.

Martin said he did not withhold the information from other commissioners but rather used the data with the greatest detail.

Adelstein and Copps also accused Martin of rushing into the cross-ownership proposal without giving public opinion sufficient consideration.

Next week, FCC commissioners are to testify before a Senate oversight hearing dealing with the media ownership issue.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company