FCC revives debate over media ownership

Martin assures that 'all voices' will be heard

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin won a unanimous vote to begin the agency’s new review of media ownership rules, but bitter partisan cracks developed instantly over whether the proceeding will include enough public interest safeguards.

Martin tried to assure his Democratic colleagues as well as public interest groups at Wednesday’s open meeting that “all voices” will be heard, but the current proceeding is likely to be as contentious as the previous one, which ended up blocked by a federal court.

All five commissioners agreed on the need to get started on reviewing restrictions on how many print and broadcast outlets a media company can own in a single market. Existing rules have been in place since the 1970s.

But that’s where consensus ended.

Democratic commissioner Michael Copps referred to the FCC’s previous attempt as “misguided handiwork” and a “classic inside-the-Beltway operation.” He suggested that as proposed, the new review — designed by the Republican majority — will likely be more of the same because it does not commit to holding a dozen public hearings to seek public comment before any specific changes are proposed, and it fails to seek any public comment on changes before the FCC would vote on them.

As a result, “Consolidation grows, localism suffers and diversity dwindles,” he said, echoing his criticisms of the previous attempt.

Jonathan Adelstein, the other Democratic commissioner, similarly faulted the previous attempt as “totally inadequate” and said the new review’s parameters offer “thin gruel” for serious debate or discussion on relevant matters, such as the impact further media consolidation might have on content, programming and minority ownership as well as public-interest obligations.

Adelstein said the planned proceeding is “a blank check” for Big Media to get even bigger and is akin to “pulling a fast one on the American people.”

GOP commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell, still relatively new, made short statements pledging a willingness to listen to all parties. Martin said the same, then chastised the Democrats for wanting “to give us an ‘F’ and it’s only the first day of class.”

Martin said he wants “full public input” throughout the new proceeding, which may take up to a year, and he promised to authorize studies on the impacts that eased ownership restrictions might have on a variety of public interest concerns. He noted the proceeding calls for “a half-dozen” public hearings, which he stressed will address questions about localism, diversity and minority ownership.

“The last time, the FCC started with a presumption that its goal was to deregulate,” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of watchdog group Media Access Project, said in a statement. “This time, we have a court decision that tells the FCC to take its thumb off the scale. If the commission follows that directive, I’m sure that it will leave the existing rules in place.”

But after the meeting, Martin told reporters he remained convinced that rules need to be updated.

In 2003, under then-chairman Michael Powell, the FCC voted along party lines to ease ownership restrictions. A federal court stopped the changes, ordering the agency to clarify its justifications for them.

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