FCC's chairman causes static

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission's monthly meetings are scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin, the trains don't always run on time, and recently they've come close to veering off the rails.

On Nov. 27, for instance, the FCC was slated to consider controversial proposals dealing with potential new cable TV regulations and increasing women and minority ownership of broadcast stations. Journalists, lobbyists and spectators waited as the five commissioners on the fractious panel wrangled over the issues eight floors above.

When they finally showed up for the public session - nearly 12 hours late - the few spectators remaining had front-row seats for the sniping and accusations that are threatening to become hallmarks of FCC meetings.

Critics usually blame Martin, a soft-spoken Republican known as a political tactician who has accomplished the rare feat of being criticized by all four of his fellow commissioners. He is also facing a congressional inquiry into the FCC's procedures and allegations of flawed research studies, suppressing data, ignoring public input and holding hearings with minimal notice.

"The FCC appears to be broken," said Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, during a hearing last week.

In an interview, Martin said he was under fire for trying to force the FCC to deal with controversial topics. "It's not unusual for there to be tension in trying to work them out."

FCC employees and people who frequently deal with the agency said tensions were bogging down the panel. Reviews of corporate mergers and sales frequently stretch longer than six months, the agency's goal.

Critics have complained that important issues - such as the 2009 transition to digital television and reforming a fund that subsidizes phone and Internet service for low-income and rural residents - are taking a back seat to bickering.

Commission employees said that Martin, chairman since 2005, keeps his plans tightly wrapped, believing there's a tactical advantage in springing them on other commissioners with little notice.

For example, last month commissioners learned the details of his proposal to ease restrictions on owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market when they read about it in an opinion article by Martin in The New York Times.

"He is a lone operator," said an FCC insider who did not want to publicly criticize Martin. "Sometimes even his own staff doesn't really know what he's thinking and what's he's going to do next."

Martin defended the release of his long-awaited cross-ownership plan, saying he was trying to allow everyone, including the public, to see it at the same time. It takes two to tangle, his supporters said, and his attempts to forge consensus on issues gives the other commissioners extra leverage.

Unlike past chairmen, Martin puts proposals on the FCC's agenda before he has lined up a majority to support him, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a public interest media and telecommunications law firm in Washington. The tactic can help Martin push his agenda by forcing commissioners to take a position, but at a cost.

"You end up with a lot of last-minute wrangling, and it does generate a certain amount of resentment and distrust," Feld said.

That was evident Nov. 27.

Shortly before 9:30 a.m., the FCC announced the meeting would not start until 11 a.m. and that the proposal to improve female and minority ownership of broadcast stations had been dropped from the agenda.

The FCC's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, had accused Martin of trying to use the proposal to deflect concerns about his cross-ownership plan's effect on women and minorities.

The Democrats had ripped that plan as caving in to large media companies. They said FCC studies Martin used to justify his plan were flawed, and they had hammered him for holding the final public hearing on the issue in Seattle with just a week's notice.

There still was a controversial proposal on the November agenda, and this one had Martin's fellow Republicans upset.

The chairman had pushed the commission to approve a report concluding that cable TV penetration had passed a key 70 percent threshold nationwide, which would trigger new regulatory powers.

Martin has complained that cable TV rates are too high and aggressively pushed cable companies to allow viewers to buy channels separately instead of in pricing tiers. The companies adamantly oppose the idea, known as a la carte, and said Martin wanted to use the new regulatory powers to enact it.

The industry disputed Martin's assertion that penetration had reached the threshold. And Republican Commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert S. McDowell took the unusual step of publicly questioning Martin's data, which were based on an outside study.

Lacking the votes to approve the report, Martin and the commissioners worked on a compromise to require all cable companies to submit information to the FCC so the agency could make its own calculation.

Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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