FCC hearing date raises Dems’ ire

Meeting's short notice angers commisioners

The Federal Communications Commission has announced its next media ownership hearing, giving only five business days’ notice and provoking the ire of the agency’s two Democratic commissioners.

Late Wednesday evening, the FCC released notice that it would hold its sixth ownership hearing next week, on Oct. 31, when it will focus on broadcasters’ service to local communities and how this comports with changes sought in media ownership rules. Hearings usually take testimony from panels of experts.

But commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, angry at the short notice, questioned the sincerity of the GOP-controlled agency’s stated commitment to examine the issue of localism.

“Over two weeks ago, we agreed to clear our calendars for the possibility of a localism hearing on Oct. 31,” Copps and Adelstein said in a joint statement Wednesday evening. “But neither we nor the public received any confirmation that the hearing would occur until tonight. This is unacceptable and unfair to the public. And it makes putting together an expert panel nearly impossible.”

They added: “Is the commission serious about allowing the public to participate in the agency’s decisionmaking? Or is the goal to be able to claim that hearings have been held, even if the public has not had a chance to fully participate?”

Watchdog group Free Press also criticized the short notice. “Chairman (Kevin) Martin’s actions suggest that he’s never been serious about paying attention to the public,” said FP exec director Josh Silver. “He’s already made up his mind and is hell-bent on gutting the rules.”

The hearing will be held at FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The contretemps is only the latest in a spate of controversy over the FCC’s ongoing review of media ownership rules, which Congress mandates that the commission undertake periodically. When the FCC tried in 2002 to loosen ownership restrictions, consumer groups and Congress vowed to stop the attempt, arguing the move would be excessive. A federal court ended up blocking the FCC, saying it had not adequately justified relaxing restrictions on cross-ownership.

FCC chairman Martin has said that, having spent 18 months or so reviewing cross-ownership restrictions and having held numerous public hearings on the subject, he wanted the commission to vote on the issue in December.

That prompted two key lawmakers to vow — as they did on the FCC’s previous attempt — to block the agency from “ramming through” any changes to ownership rules. Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said at a press conference they called Wednesday afternoon that a December vote would be premature and thus promised to introduce a bill that would invalidate the vote.