FCC Chairman Kevin Martin had a picnic at last week’s House hearing compared to today’s session. Just about every senator present at the Commerce Committee FCC oversight hearing asked Martin to cancel, postpone or otherwise delay next week’s vote on eliminating cross-ownership restrictions in the top 20 markets. He just as frequently quoted the mandate of Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requiring the elimination of rules no longer needed due to changes in the competitive landscape and said he anticipates going ahead as planned.
The question and answer period kicked off with outgoing Trent Lott (R-MS), who has worked with Byron Dorgan (D-ND) of late to head off further media consolidation. He wondered why Martin was worried about a newspaper issue. He perhaps got off the best line of the day, saying "I don’t get why Republicans would be crying crocodile tears over newspapers having problems…Where I come from, we use them to wrap mullet." Lott set the tone, and even Ranking Member Ted Stevens (R-AK) said he felt the FCC was moving too fast on the issue.
John Kerry (D-MA) was a relentless interrogator, demanding to know why Martin felt the need to rush ahead with the cross-ownership vote despite the will of both the people and Congress indicating strong opposition. Martin cited the will of Congress in 1996 and the lack of a rule modification since 1975. Martin said he was trying to strike a balance between the public interest and the needs of communications companies; Kerry said he was inviting further congressional action. The bottom line was that Martin refused a direct request from Kerry to postpone Tuesday’s vote.
Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who became the recipient of allegedly suppressed FCC reports and made them public during hearings on Martin’s current term as commissioner, was also on the warpath. She said that it was ludicrous that the FCC’s internal investigator, appointed by the Commission, let the Commission off the hook for burying information because it ran counter to the chair’s policy goals. A Ken Ferree quote to that effect was cited, and Democratic Commissioner Copps and Adelstein agreed that it was curious. Martin said that the investigation failed to turn up illegal behavior, and Boxer promised to make it her business to put an independent investigator in charge of future issues.
RBR/TVBR observation: The lion’s share of the questions went to Martin, with Copps and Adelstein sharing the duties of presenting the loyal opposition’s case. Deborah Taylor Tate (R) and Robert McDowell (R) could almost have phoned in their testimony and watched the rest of the show from the comfort of their living room (it was aired on C-SPAN) for all the action they received once the question-and-answer period began. However, McDowell also cited the will of Congress as expressed in 1996 which favors deregulation, so we’re looking for a tight 3-2 vote Tuesday in favor of Martin’s proposal to open the top 20 markets to cross-ownership. But it certainly looks like that will not be the end of the story.