The nation's top communications regulator defended his effort to ease a decades-old restriction on the ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations yesterday, telling Washington lawmakers that change is needed to help foundering newspapers and improve local news.
Kevin J. Martin, the Federal Communications Commission's chairman, wants his agency to vote on his plan Dec. 18, a date that some lawmakers, the agency's Democrats and many consumer advocates call a rush to judgment.
Critics want more time to review public comments and study how the change could affect the news people see, hear and read.
Martin, a Republican testifying alongside the other four FCC members, told the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet that his proposal is backed by research, public hearings and court guidance.
He also denied that loopholes in his plan would make mergers easy and undermine conditions intended to protect the diversity of news sources.
"The media marketplace is considerably different than it was when the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule was put in place more than 30 years ago," Martin said. "Consumers have benefited from the explosion of new sources of news and information, but according to almost every measure newspapers are struggling.
"Allowing cross-ownership may help to forestall the erosion in local news coverage by enabling companies to share local news-gathering costs across multiple media platforms," he said.
The rule Martin seeks to relax dates from the 1970s and bans companies from owning a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. Some joint ownership arrangements predate the ban, while other companies receive individual waivers.
Media consolidation foes say weaker rules could trigger a merger frenzy, and that the apparent diversity of news is misleading since a limited number of companies control most major outlets.
Unlike previous agency efforts, Martin's current proposal addresses only the newspaper-broadcast ownership rule. His change, which he called a "minor loosening of the ban," would allow for cross-ownership in the 20 largest media markets under certain conditions.
Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, The Sun, and several other newspapers and television stations, has the most to gain by Martin's plan because it has newspaper/broadcast combinations in Los Angeles and four other markets. Last week, the FCC gave Tribune waivers of at least two years from the so-called cross-ownership rule, the final regulatory hurdle to closing its $8.2 billion deal to go private by the end of the year.
The commission's two Democrats oppose Martin's plan, while the two other Republicans appear to support it.
Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein said loose standards and vague language in Martin's proposal open the door to media mergers in markets of all sizes.
Copps said Martin's requirements "are about as tough as a bowl of Jell-O. You don't even have to meet them all - it's just a list of things the FCC will consider."
Under questioning from subcommittee Chairman Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, Martin said the proposed rule would provide a "high hurdle" for mergers in smaller markets and he would work with the Democrats to address their concerns over wording.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.