The head of the Federal Communications Commission says he has no intention of delaying a disastrous plan to eviscerate longstanding agency rules preventing a company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was steadfast on his controversial plans at a Senate hearing, even as exasperated senator after exasperated senator tore it apart on Thursday. Virtually every member present at the FCC oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation grilled Martin on his justifications for the proposal and his headlong rush to hold a vote on it next week.
FCC commissioners Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell, both Republicans, are expected to join Martin in voting to approve the plan. Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are expected to vote against the measure.
Ignoring pleas and threats from both Republican and Democratic members of the committee, Martin on Thursday steadfastly refused request after request that he at least delay a vote on his plan, if not abandon it altogether.
Consumers Union, the publisher of this blog, is adamantly opposed to Martin’s plan — particularly it’s incredibly short timetable.
Some of the exchanges between the senators and Martin were extraordinary even by Washington standards, reflecting deep frustration not only with the plan but with the overall way the chairman has presided over the agency charged with overseeing the communications industry and protecting the public interest.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, said the Senate should not approve any further appointments to the FCC until Congress can rewrite its rules governing the agency and the way it conducts its business. Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, told Rockefeller he thought that might be a good idea.
As the hearing progressed members of the committee repeatedly asked Martin if he would delay the vote in order to complete ongoing studies on the impact of media consolidation on local news and minority ownership of broadcast outlets. Each time he said he planned to move ahead with the vote on December 18th.
Specifically, Martin’s plan calls for the agency’s so-called “cross ownership ban” to be relaxed to allow the major daily newspapers in the nation’s 20 largest markets to purchase a local television or radio station. Martin says his plan would prohibit the newspapers the top 20 markets from purchasing one of the top four televisions stations in their market.
Martin’s plan contains a huge loophole that could potentially allow newspapers in markets outside the top 20 to buy a broadcaster, however. All they would need to do is obtain a waiver from the FCC based on some loosely defined criteria contained in the plan.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for consumers, citizens and, indeed, democracy itself. Despite the recent proliferation of new media outlets such as the Internet and satellite radio, newspapers and local television stations remain the primary source of local news for most people. Allowing them to merge will mean less local news and fewer and less diverse voices in communities all across the country.
We are hopeful that Martin will reconsider his stand and heed the overwhelming opposition to his plan from lawmakers and a vast majority of the public.