By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007
Despite a grilling from a Senate committee yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin said he would not postpone a Dec. 18 vote on a controversial media-ownership rule.
The panel accused Martin of ramming through what it called an unpopular regulation, which would partially lift a 35-year-old ban on one company owning a newspaper and a radio or television station in the same city.
Martin, who faced similar questioning from a House panel last week, defended his record, saying it may be impossible to achieve consensus on the highly contentious and political issue of media ownership and that his agency is under court and congressional order to keep its media-ownership rules up to date.
Even though the cross-ownership rule headlined yesterday's meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee, the panel used the nearly three-hour hearing to hammer Martin on a number of issues.
For instance, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked the chairman why he was putting resources into lifting the cross-ownership ban while failing to educate the public and aid broadcasters on the conversion to digital television. In February 2009, television viewers who rely on over-the-air television (meaning they do not subscribe to cable or satellite services) will find their analog televisions useless unless they purchase a federally subsidized converter box.
The FCC was criticized this week in a report from the Government Accountability Office that said the agency has no master plan to oversee the conversion. Martin said his agency has asked Congress twice for money to spread the word about digital television and twice has been denied.
"I think without funds we are doing a very good job of educating consumers," he said.
Opponents of lifting the cross-ownership ban say it would concentrate too much control over local news and information. The newspaper industry and Martin say the rule was crafted before the rise of satellite television and the growth of cable and the Internet, rendering it obsolete. Further, both say, allowing some cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations could provide economic relief to the struggling newspaper industry by allowing it to spread out the costs of newsgathering, and could provide more local news as broadcast stations use newspaper reporting.
Despite a lengthy public comment period, fellow commissioners and anti-consolidation groups have criticized Martin for trying to rush the item ahead without examining the impact of consolidation might have on other issues, such as minority and female ownership of broadcast outlets.
Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and McCaskill asked Martin whether he would delay the vote; he said he would not.
"You are a remarkable public leader if you move ahead and do it," McCaskill said. "You're a braver man than I am."
Martin, a Republican, received little help from members of his party on the committee. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) co-sponsored a bill passed by the Commerce Committee last week that would halt the Dec. 18 vote. Yesterday, Lott and others asked Martin why he cares about helping the newspaper industry.
"We have an obligation to make sure that local newsgathering is robust," Martin said. "That includes ensuring a balance of independent voices in the local community."
But fellow FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, took the panel's side: "We are not the Federal Newspaper Commission," he said.
Nelson asked Martin whether he thought a "cloud" would be placed over him if he went ahead with the Dec. 18 cross-ownership vote in the face of opposition.
"During my time at the commission, there's always been a cloud over the commission on this issue," he said. "It is the most contentious issue we end up dealing with, but it is important for us to proceed."