Democrats urge tighter FCC rules

by Charles Babington, Washington Post

Senate Democrats pressed the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission this week to slap tighter controls on media ownership, public-interest broadcasting and television violence. But after a sometimes contentious two-hour hearing Thursday, some lawmakers expressed little hope of meaningful change.

Several Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee warned the agency not to try to relax limits on the number of media outlets one company can own, as the FCC did in 2003 only to have a federal court stay the action. Recent FCC policies on media ownership, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), have been "a spectacular failure."

He railed against rules that allow one entity to own eight radio stations in a large city and against proposals to allow one owner to have three TV stations in a city. "More concentration means less competition," Dorgan said. "The public-interest standards have been nearly completely emasculated."

But FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has close ties to the Bush White House, defended the agency's policies.

"The commission has tried to make decisions based on a fundamental belief that a robust, competitive marketplace, not regulation, is ultimately the greatest protector of the public interest," Martin said. He told Dorgan, "I'm not convinced yet we need to have the kind of requirements" for local TV and radio programming that some advocates have championed.

Flexing their muscles at Congress's first oversight hearing of the FCC since taking control of the House and Senate last month, Democrats lectured and sometimes scolded FCC members, saying the agency needs more teeth in its regulation of broadcast outlets, telephones, the Internet and other services.

"The change of this last election," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), "is that there's going to be a lot more attention on the FCC. . . . It has abandoned its core responsibility to the public interest."

After the hearing, Rockefeller was asked if he was hopeful that the FCC might heed the Democrats' advice. He answered with one syllable: "No."

Tamara Lipper, a spokeswoman for Martin said Friday: "The commission always looks forward to receiving guidance from Congress and hopes to be as responsive as possible."

Scores of lobbyists and interest group members filled long hallways and stairwells in the Russell Senate Office Building on Thursday before crowding into an overflow room to watch the proceedings on TV monitors. The FCC's two Democratic commissioners often endorsed the senators' complaints, while their three GOP colleagues gently pushed back.

Democratic Commissioner Michael J. Copps told Dorgan that the FCC needs tougher requirements for broadcast outlets seeking license renewals and more detailed descriptions of locally produced content that would serve "the public interest."

Rockefeller called on the agency to put more pressure on cable and broadcast TV outlets to reduce the amount of televised violence. "Commercial television is in the worst state I've ever seen," he said.

Even sharper was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who questioned whether Martin had aggressively looked into "the suppression" of two reports -- drafted by FCC staff members -- that reflected badly on the agency's media-ownership policies. "A culture of secrecy is still pervasive at the FCC," Boxer said.

Martin, whose voice never rose above a soft drawl, said he made all the documents public as soon as he learned of them last fall.

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