Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin took plenty of lumps during a lengthy House oversight hearing about his management style and some of his policies. But he also heard some supportive comments, and the proceedings concluded with Martin receiving some fatherly advice from one of his harshest critics in Congress.
The Wednesday hearing conducted by the House subcommittee overseeing telecommunications and the Internet covered a range of issues — the state of minority ownership and Martin’s cable television policies, among others — but the main focus was Martin’s proposal to relax the newspaper-broadcaster cross-ownership ban that he’s skedded for a commission vote on Dec. 18.
Numerous bipartisan members of Congress have cautioned the FCC’s Republican chief against holding what they say is a premature vote. Martin only introduced the proposal last month — in a way that has drawn criticism — and lawmakers as well as consumer groups have said the chairman is rushing to loosen media ownership rules.
The Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would prevent a Dec. 18 vote, but the full Senate must still vote on that bill, and a companion bill does not yet exist in the House.
House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said, “Postponing the planned vote would remove clouds of procedural objections that currently obscure the specifics of the proposal and hamper efforts to directly discuss them.”
Martin’s plan “would benefit from more time so that the public and the Congress can seek clarification over several provisions that remain ambiguous or vague with respect to their intent or operational effect,” Markey continued.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) had broader concerns. “In recent months, we have heard about many FCC agenda meetings postponed all day while closed-door negotiations on important public matters are conducted,” he said. “We have witnessed too much sniping among the five commissioners, and we have heard too many tales of a short-circuited decisionmaking process. In sum, the FCC appears to be broken.”
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) quizzed Martin on whether he was aware of multiple newspaper associations that are opposed to easing the cross-ownership ban. Martin said he was unaware of most of them.
In a contentious exchange with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Martin disputed the lawmaker’s characterizing five of 10 studies the FCC commissioned on media ownership — and which Martin is using in part to justify his proposals — as flawed or unreliable.
The most confrontational moment arose when Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) chastised Martin for having announced a public hearing in Seattle on media ownership on short notice. That hearing was held on a Friday last month, and hundreds of locals spoke against relaxing the cross-ownership ban. The next day, Martin’s proposal to relax the ban appeared as an op-ed piece in the New York Times.
Inslee all but accused Martin of writing the piece before the hearing, demanding to know when exactly Martin submitted the manuscript for publication. Martin said he couldn’t remember. Inslee instructed him to find out and report back.
On the issue of minority ownership of broadcast stations — about 3% are owned by minorities — Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) expressed “absolute frustration” with the commission.
“In 1998, the FCC identified the minority ownership issue as a serious problem,” Rush said. “The commission declared it would take steps to remedy it. Ten years later, there’s no remedy, just empty rhetoric.”
Martin said he has proposed items addressing the problem for the Dec. 18 commission meeting and vote.
Through it all, Martin remained calm and argued that the commission is not “broken” and that he has been responsive to critical issues and concerns raised in recent weeks.
Dingell disagreed, saying at one point that he didn’t think Martin was answering a question the lawmaker put to him directly.
Still, Dingell, who on Monday announced an investigation into Martin’s leadership, had kind words for Martin, noting that he likes the FCC chairman personally. Dingell said that a chairman’s two priorities for doing a good job are to be fair and to appear to be fair. He suggested that Martin needed to attend to the second priority.