Democratic senators grill FCC

Oversight hearing brings Martin to Hill

WASHINGTON — Commercial television is “in the worst state ever,” the Federal Communications Commission is not “suppressing” information, the FCC’s last go at revising media ownership rules was “a spectacular failure” and a more equitable deployment of high-speed Internet services isn’t just “feel-good liberal theory.”

These were among the major issues raised Thursday in the new Democratic-controlled Senate’s first oversight hearing of the FCC.

The Senate Commerce Committee billed the hearing as “Assessing the Communications Marketplace,” but “Assessing the FCC” would have been more accurate. Republican as well as Democratic members of the committee raised concerns about current agency policy and direction on several points.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) appeared initially to be an ally, opening with an attack on primetime fare on “commercial television,” a distinction that excludes pubcasting, in which his wife is a major player.

Rockefeller listed “junk, sex, scandal” as the majority of what is aired now. “Commercial television is in the worst state I’ve ever seen it.” He said he tries not to watch it, and hopes his adult children avoid it, too.

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, also a vocal critic of sexual and violent content on broadcast as well as cable TV, nodded approvingly and seemed to welcome Rockefeller’s question of whether the industry’s current attempt to self-regulate on content was working.

“No,” Martin said emphatically. The educational outreach campaign is “insufficient.” Rockefeller is author of a bill that would allow the FCC to regulate broadcast airwaves for violent as well as indecent content.

But then Rockefeller criticized the FCC for having “abandoned its core responsibility” to ensure public interest requirements during the license renewal process. Insisting on such requirements, he said, could help combat the kind of content he was describing.

Martin hesitated to endorse that viewpoint, alluding to possible First Amendment conflicts.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) demanded to know why the FCC was “suppressing” internal reports that contradict policies that Martin supports, such as loosening media ownership limits. She also chided him for having once jokingly referred to “the KGB atmosphere of the FCC” at a public dinner.

“I think a lot of truth is said as a joke,” Boxer said, then implied that Martin was making light of an atmosphere he should be working to change.

Martin responded he had personally directed that any and all studies relating to media ownership be made publicly available. They were eventually posted on the FCC’s Web site.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) hammered Martin on the agency’s seeming foot-dragging on completing promised hearings on localism — which, Dorgan said, the FCC should have done prior to launching its current review of media ownership rules. He also blasted the agency’s last change of rules as “a spectacular failure,” and warned against repeating it.

Several members of the committee lauded Martin for the increasing amount of broadband services becoming available, but some said they were worried about a growing “digital divide,” in which upper-income, urban homes were benefiting far more from the increase than lower-income, rural homes.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) asked how Congress could help get broadband to rural areas. Martin said that reviving the video franchise reform bill that stalled in the previous Congress could be a start.

Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps said closing the digital divide “isn’t just feel-good liberal theory. It’s about the competitiveness of the United States.”

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