Hill pot shots hit FCC 'on-ramp'

Dems' barrage on ownership change targets Martin

WASHINGTON -- FCC chairman Kevin Martin defended his plan to ease the federal bar against common ownership of a newspaper and a TV station in a single market on Tuesday against congressional Democrats who accused him of moving too far too fast, and Republicans who think he isn't moving far enough with enough dispatch.

Martin and the four other commissioners were called before the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications panel to discuss the chairman's plan to make it easier in the top 20 markets for a single company to enjoy joint ownership .

The plan, which is expected to be voted on during the commission's Dec. 18 meeting, has met with controversy largely from Democrats who fear that it will concentrate too much media power in too few hands.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee, said easing the rule would prove to be a "powerful toxin to democracy."

Most Democrats are pushing Martin to delay the vote, giving lawmakers and the public more time to digest the proposal.

"If there is anyone who believes that one week provides sufficient time to review the thousands of pages of comments which will surely be received, then I have a bridge in Michigan that I'd like to sell you," committee chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., told the commissioners.

Martin attempted to deflect the criticism calling the plan a "modest" one that would help the newspaper and broadcast industry continue to compete in the modern media universe.

He told the committee that when the federal appeals court in Philadelphia tossed out the commission's 2003 attempt to ease all the media ownership rules, it specifically said that easing newspaper-TV cross ownership ban was the one change it was likely to uphold.

In response to questions from Markey, Martin told the lawmaker that the change would not act as a "speed bump" nor the "Berlin Wall," but would allow flexibility in the marketplace.

That contention was hotly disputed by commissioner Michael Copps.

"I don't think it's the Berlin Wall or a speed bump," he said. "It's an on-ramp to more media consolidation. We make this so easy, it's not even a test."

While most Democrats criticized the proposal, it won nearly universal support from Republicans who criticized Martin for not doing enough.

"It's been said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the committee's senior Republican. "If that's the case, we could use a few hobgoblins at the FCC."

Barton complained that Martin plans to ease the cross-ownership ban while doing little on other media ownership restrictions and is attempting to limit the number of subscribers one cable system can reach.

"It baffles me how the same FCC can appropriately eliminate regulations for some segments of industry because of increased competition, and at the very same time refuse to deregulate or even impose more regulation on segments of industry that are creating that very competition," he said.

But Martin said the decision to change the cross-ownership ban was made because the other rules had been liberalized over the years, and that the newspaper and broadcast industries were the only ones who made good enough arguments for relief.

"We should move forward where there is the most need," he said. "This is the only rule that has not been changed."

The rule change wasn't the only thing on lawmakers minds as Martin also had to defend his management of the agency, and that he has "cherry picked" data. On Monday, Dingell ordered an investigation of the agency by the subcommittee on oversight and investigations alleging a lack of openness. On Wednesday he said the FCC "appears to be broken."

In response to a critical report from the Government Accountability Office, the agency said Tuesday that it would begin publishing a list of items under consideration for a vote by the commission on its Web site in an effort "intended to make the FCC's rulemaking process as fair and transparent as possible."