WASHINGTON — Will the real Kevin Martin please stand up?
Judging from the press coverage of his appointment last week as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the 38-year-old lawyer from North Carolina is everything from a man of righteous conviction to a shrewd, deal-making politico to maybe even a shill for the telecom industry.
“A hardliner on punishing broadcasters who flouted decency standards on television and radio,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. “A consensus-builder,” claimed the New York Times. “A free-market conservative, more conciliatory and better able to manage the FCC’s challenges than outgoing Chairman Michael Powell,” cooed the Los Angeles Times.
Insider reaction was even more disparate.
Public interest and media arts groups found Martin scary. As one advocate put it, Martin’s appointment is “cause for concern to not only creative artists, but more importantly, to the American public.”
Industry leaders welcomed him as an ally. The NAB was ecstatic, with topper Edward Fritts toasting Martin’s appointment. Martin was the sole supporter of the NAB’s position on digital must-carry rules during the February open-commission vote.
GOP leaders hailed the appointment of a fellow Republican. So did some Democrats, though some are wary of his intentions on hot-button issues like media ownership.
To some extent, the multiple and sometimes conflicting impressions of Martin are a natural result of the different political or ideological lenses through which he’s viewed.
But as a member of the commission since 2001, Martin has sometimes toed the party line, other times cut deals with the commission’s two Democrats, supported Powell wholeheartedly, then only partially, and on occasion flat-out opposed him.
He jumped ship from the Republicans on the issue of telephone deregulation, bitterly opposing Powell and taking the side of state regulators. He’s been vocally in favor of ramping up indecency controls, calling for fines on every single utterance of an obscene word.
In each instance, Martin was appealing to a particular constituency, some with competing or at least differing interests. From regional Bell companies and state regulators to social conservatives, free-marketeers, government-mandate seekers and more, all have at one point or another found Martin sympathetic to their respective causes.
As one of four commissioners, it’s much easier to be all things to all people. But it may be impossible for Martin to do the same now as chairman, as more and more businesses and industries under FCC purview say the main problem with the agency is its lack of a clear, unified voice and vision.
Martin has yet to cut a distinct, coherent figure as a leader on much of anything. A strong supporter, yes, but not a leader.
Given the massive issues before the commission — an ongoing debate about indecency, the transition to digital broadcasting, a revision of media ownership rules — he’s not going to cut that figure by sitting down and making deals.
He’s going to have to let everyone know exactly who he is, and isn’t.