FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin’s congressional headache just got a little worse.
The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed a bill that would stop Martin’s plans for a Dec. 18 Federal Communications Commission vote to relax the newspaper-TV station cross-ownership restriction.
The bill — sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and backed by such prominent Democratic colleagues as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), as well as GOP powers Trent Lott (Miss.) and Olympia Snowe (Wash.) — calls for a 90-day period of comments and replies to any proposed federal rule change.
Martin announced the change to cross-ownership only last month. Dorgan and the bill’s other supporters — generally opponents of media consolidation — claim Martin is “rushing” a vote on the issue.
The bill would also require Martin to complete proceedings on determining the impact of a rule change on localism, as well as stipulating public interest obligations of broadcasters before voting on the cross-ownership issue.
Lott said he hopes the bill will make it to the Senate floor for a full vote “within the next couple weeks.”
The Commerce Committee’s action Tuesday comes on the heels of Monday’s announcement that a House subcommittee is investigating Martin’s leadership and management of the agency. Martin also faces a House oversight hearing today that is expected to grill him on these and other issues.
Martin and fellow GOP commissioner Robert McDowell have noted that the FCC’s review of media- ownership rules has been going on since 2003. In particular, while a federal court blocked the FCC’s previous attempt to remove the cross-ownership ban entirely at that time, the court acknowledged the need for a change to the ban, but ordered the FCC to better justify it.
In November, Martin proposed a limited relaxation of the ban, saying that cross-ownership could exist only in the top 20 media markets in the country and if the broadcast outlets were not among the top four in the market. A vote on his proposal was put on the tentative agenda for Dec. 18.
Dorgan said that was not enough time for officials and the public to review Martin’s proposal and comment on it. He accused Martin of being “obsessed” with loosening media ownership rules as quickly as possible.
“Media ownership rules are important in a democracy,” Dorgan said in a statement. “We won’t allow the FCC to rush to judgment, and we won’t allow the public to be shut out of the process.”
Obama also weighed in with a statement: “Congress cannot continue to allow the FCC to move forward with regulatory changes through leaks to the press and closed door meetings. This legislation will ensure that any changes to FCC rules will be done through a fully transparent and inclusive process, fully taking into account the interests of our minority communities,” he said.