Slow down the FCC Chairman's runaway train

[Portland Oregonian editorial, via Democracy Reform Oregon]

Did you make it to Friday night's important Federal Communications Commission hearing on loosening media ownership rules?

Chances are you never heard about it. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced the hearing five business days in advance, the legal minimum. Worse, he scheduled it for 4 p.m. in downtown Seattle.

If you've ever been stuck in Seattle traffic at rush hour on a Friday, you might think Martin was trying to make it difficult for critics to attend. And if that was your suspicion, you were right, according to FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the panel.

"It is clear the FCC chairman does not want you to turn out and participate in tonight's hearing," Adelstein wrote in an astonishing guest column in Friday's Seattle Times.

The FCC is bitterly divided over Martin's determined rush to loosen long-standing limits on how many radio and TV stations a single company can own. Friday's hearing in Seattle was the last of a measly six across the nation, each announced with the minimum five days' notice.

This stinks, although not quite as badly as what Martin's predecessor, Michael Powell, did as FCC boss in 2003. Powell rammed through a deplorable rollback of ownership rules with virtually no public input.

By a 3-2 vote, Powell & Co. ruled that a single company could own enough TV stations to reach up to 45 percent of the national audience. They also made it easier for a single company to own a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market, and they greatly loosened the rules on owning several TV stations in one market.

Congress, the courts and the American public rejected that 2003 decision as a dangerous welcome mat for even greater concentration of media power. And now Powell's successor, Martin, is trying to engineer a similar rollback.

A diversity of media voices, preserved through a diversity of ownership, serves the national interest. That is true nationwide and in local markets as well, but what Martin seeks to do at the behest of media conglomerates would reduce the market place of ideas and artistic expression.

Fortunately, this isn't a partisan issue. Opponents of Martin's impending rule changes range from progressives such as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to conservatives such as Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Lott, in fact, joined with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., on Friday in introducing legislation to halt Martin's rush to gut FCC rules. Their bill would order the FCC to study how broadcasters serve communities with local news, create an independent task force to look into broadcast ownership by women and minorities, and give the public a 90-day comment period on any proposed rules.

At present, Martin has no intention of seeking more public comment. He and his two fellow Republicans on the commission will release proposed rule changes as early next week, with a vote planned for Dec. 18.

"It shows there is a pre-ordained outcome," Adelstein said in a joint statement with Michael Copps, the other Democrat on the commission.

If they're right, Congress will need to step in as it did in 2003.

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