Martin's initiatives raise vitriol from all sides

Kevin J. Martin is said to harbor political aspirations. Assuming that’s true, the slogan “Bringing people together” would certainly apply to his tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — albeit not in the way he intended.

As if suddenly realizing that his tenure risks coming to an end with even less to show for it than FCC predecessor Michael Powell, Martin embarked on a flurry of initiatives — from reducing cable rates to tackling long-debated media ownership guidelines — as the clock winds down on the Bush administration. In doing so, however, he unleashed vitriol from all sides, including ostensible ideological allies.

Part of this is beyond the chairman’s control, inasmuch as some advocacy groups stood eager to pounce on any GOP-backed regulatory scheme as a threat to democracy and contributor to every societal ill short of male-pattern baldness.

Yet Martin has done himself no favors in his hair-splitting, convoluted and poorly orchestrated approach, providing ample fodder for those determined to stall until Bush leaves office and a Democrat can replace him, pushing the FCC in a new direction.

If nothing else, the onslaught of emails blasting Martin in recent weeks has been breathtaking in its variety.

Republican and Democratic legislators. The Parents Television Council. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders. The Institute for Liberty. The NAACP. The Faith & Family Broadcasting Coalition. Free Press. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Common Cause. The National Congress of Black Women. Oh, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Some of the criticism sounds disingenuous, including Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein’s accusation in the New York Times that Martin has undertaken “a manic attempt to finish an aggressive number of controversial decisions” in order to “provide quick cover for the media consolidation agenda.”

Actually, Martin would have spared himself fire from business interests by seeking to blow the lid off the ownership rules, as opposed to pursuing half-measures designed to ensconce a status quo that’s essentially been allowed to exist throughout this decade.

The gist of Martin’s proposed revision primarily involves relaxing the guidelines just enough to disperse the cloud hovering over the Tribune Co., which acquired Times Mirror in 2000 and has spent Bush’s entire term waiting for someone to officially bless the company’s structure.

Notably, the Times Mirror deal hasn’t yielded the hoped-for synergistic benefits anticipated from pairing local TV stations with newspapers, although it’s difficult to discern how much of that was due to a rapidly shifting marketplace or Tribune’s incompetence. (Full disclosure: As a former Times Mirror employee, I still hold Tribune stock options whose value has plummeted since 2003.)

As a longtime critic of unfettered media consolidation who initially feared the worst, my own position has softened as the 21st century has unfolded.

For starters, most of the damage associated with deregulation was irreversibly done when the financial interest and syndication rules (or fin-syn) were eliminated. Studios acquired major networks, conglomerates grew insanely big and the ranks of viable independent producers withered.

At the same time, the monopoly power those enlarged conglomerates were widely expected to abuse has hardly made them invincible; rather, traditional gatekeepers like Tribune and Viacom have stumbled into this new age, blindsided by technological changes while the financial star of companies such as Google soars.

Similarly, concerns about a shrinking diversity of voices have been partly offset by exploding options online. And if those chirps don’t rival the brass section broadcasters enjoy, old-media megaphones are hardly what they used to be: Fragmentation has made them fainter, hastening a tabloid slide in a desperate attempt to be heard — a disheartening trend that no amount of government intervention is likely to remedy.

Given all that, it seems silly to endlessly postpone any action simply out of fear as to where the capricious future might lead. Better to set the game’s rules and try erecting reasonable safeguards than use parliamentary maneuvers to ensure an extended state of paralysis.

So while Martin has made a mess of things, the shrill response from critics hasn’t exactly cloaked them in honor either. In a way, though, the FCC has presented us with a strange holiday gift — proving it’s still possible for liberals and conservatives, whites and blacks, and the pious and secular to unite as one big hostile, dysfunctional family.

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