FCC chief seeks to avoid missteps of predecessor

by Jim Puzzanghera, LA Times

Kevin J. Martin drank two cups of Starbucks coffee, a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Pepsi and a can of Diet Coke. Maybe it was all that stimulation that enabled the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to do something in February his predecessor rarely did.

He faced the public.

For nearly six hours, a well-caffeinated Martin listened as a parade of critics stepped up to microphones at a Harrisburg, Pa., theater to lambaste him and his fellow commissioners for considering rule changes that would allow media companies to buy more TV and radio stations.

The public clearly was not on board.

"I am concerned that greater media consolidation will silence voices that deserve to be heard," Bishop Benjamin F. Peterson Jr. of the Greater Bible Way Temple in Philadelphia said during the hearing, the third of seven that Martin plans to hold this year.

The FCC is in the midst of a periodic review of its media ownership rules, as required by Congress. The agency will spend the rest of 2007 studying whether to relax restrictions on the number of radio and TV stations that a company can own in one market, as well as rules that prevent ownership of a newspaper and a station in the same city.

But this review could be much different from the last one, held four years ago. The largest station owners are not as insistent this time around on easing the rules because the broadcasting business has lost some luster since 2003 as advertisers and viewers have become enamored of the Internet. Major station owners such as News Corp., Walt Disney Co. and CBS Corp. are more interested in reducing their broadcast holdings and expanding their presence online.

"It does not appear to me that the passion of the opponents has diminished in any way, but the passions of the proponents have diminished significantly," said Blair Levin, a telecommunications analyst at brokerage Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.

One exception: Tribune Co., which owns newspapers and TV stations in five markets, including Los Angeles, where it owns The Times and KTLA Channel 5. The company's prospective new owner, Sam Zell, would need waivers in those markets to comply with the rules.

Another factor is that Martin appears intent on avoiding the mistakes made by his predecessor. Former Chairman Michael Powell, a fellow Republican, was widely criticized for holding just one public hearing, and suffered a humiliating blow to his credibility when Congress reversed part of the FCC's decision to overhaul the ownership rules.

As a commissioner in 2003, Martin voted to liberalize the rules. That's one reason opponents worry that his open approach might be simply an attempt to smooth the path for what the media industry wants. In Harrisburg, he was asked whether the public forums were designed to build a better case for rule changes.

"That would imply that we've already figured out what the outcome should be," he answered, saying he was only gathering information.

Martin has managed to avoid some of the intense criticism Powell faced in navigating a volatile topic that fires up opposition from both liberal and conservative activists. Martin's cautious, go-slow approach starkly contrasts with Powell's hard-charging, confrontational style.

The chairman also has been more astute about building political support than Powell was. Powell's failure to personally engage the public was widely considered a major misstep in his push to overhaul the rules. The FCC approved a slate of controversial changes by a partisan 3-2 vote in 2003 after nine months of gathering information, including about 750,000 formal written comments and hundreds of thousands of calls and postcards — but only one official public hearing.

There was little buy-in.

Opponents of media consolidation complained the public was shut out of the process, an allegation Powell derided as "garbage." Congress scaled back the most significant change by voting to lower the percentage of the country a single broadcaster could reach. Federal judges halted the rest and sent the rules back to the FCC, faulting it for failing to justify its actions, including its attempt to lift a ban on having a newspaper and TV station in the same market owned by the same company.

"Michael Powell just had an arrogance about public participation … and failed to realize this is an inherently political process," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that filed the lawsuit that sent the 2003 media ownership rules back to the FCC. "Martin understands the politics of it."

Those politics became even trickier after Democrats, who generally oppose more media consolidation, took power in Congress this year.

Martin, who sometimes speaks so softly it's hard to hear him, doesn't shrink from his opinions, but delivers them in a disarmingly understated manner. He demonstrated that style at a recent House oversight hearing, calmly explaining a variety of controversial decisions in the face of sharp questioning from Democrats.

Martin started working last year to address Democratic concerns about media ownership.

He agreed to hold a series of hearings around the country, somewhat assuaging the demands of the commission's two Democrats for more public input. When Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) confronted him with an unpublished FCC study that she charged Powell had suppressed in 2004 because it did not support media consolidation, Martin promptly posted it on the agency's website.

And amid criticism about the small number of broadcast licenses held by woman and minorities, Martin recently suggested allowing broadcasters to lease some of the new channels they will be able to offer because of their new digital spectrum to groups that lack the money to buy TV stations.

"Martin is a very savvy guy who sees around the corner politically," said Richard E. Wiley, a former FCC chairman who represents newspaper companies seeking to eliminate a ban on owning TV stations in the same city they publish. Wiley said Martin knew that he had to conduct the media ownership review "in a more deliberative fashion, have a lot more public input on it, so when he comes back, hopefully he can get people to buy into it."

Martin hasn't pleased everyone. Media companies that want the rules relaxed are frustrated by his slow pace. Opponents of consolidation want more hearings and complain of little advance notice for the ones already held. Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, strong foes of relaxing the ownership rules, have been traveling the country, holding unofficial public forums.

"It's a lot better than sitting in your office and just reading the usual submissions from the usual cast of Washington-based characters," Copps said. Asked whether Martin was doing a better job than Powell on media ownership, Copps replied, "We'll know in the final analysis by what comes out."

Just as with hearings in Los Angeles and Nashville last year, the opposition to loosening media ownership rules was evident in Harrisburg on Feb. 23.

Aside from an occasional bathroom break, Martin and his fellow commissioners listened to every speaker — the ranting and the rational, the succinct and the long-winded. The FCC extended the hearing for 30 minutes to accommodate the crowd until the theater had to be cleared for a show. Copps and Adelstein stayed even longer, listening to comments in the lobby.

"I think Martin learned from his predecessor," said Anthony Mazza of the Prometheus Radio Project, an advocacy group that challenged the 2003 changes, after giving the FCC his allotted two minutes of opinion. "Whether it yields a different result remains to be seen."

article originally published at http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-fcc8apr08,1,3101936.story.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey