FCC chief presses for vote

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Brushing aside objections, the nation's chief communications regulator told the Senate yesterday that he will push forward with a vote to ease media-ownership rules.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin said he will conduct a vote Tuesday, even though the five-member commission remains bitterly divided and key members of Congress want a postponement.

Striving for compromise now is pointless because the issue is "too politically divisive," Martin told the Senate Commerce Committee.

He wants the commission to change a rule so that media companies could own both a newspaper and TV station in the nation's 20 biggest markets. Waivers for smaller markets would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Since the 1970s, the FCC has been trying to encourage competition and diversity by barring companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market.

Martin says looser restrictions would help financially struggling newspapers survive. He is counting on his two fellow Republican commissioners to support him. The commission's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, are expected to vote against him.

The two Democrats said in a statement Wednesday that an FCC vote next week would be a "huge mistake." They accused Martin of "callous disregard" for public input on the rules, which they described as a "mishmash of half-baked ideas."

The FCC should not be doing anything that might accelerate media concentration, given the current "sad and embarrassing state of minority and female ownership," Copps told the Senate hearing. "This is just plain nuts."

Consumer advocates also want the FCC to allow more time to review public comments and examine the potential consequences of greater ownership concentration.

Martin argues that the existing ownership rule makes no sense at a time when newspapers are cutting local reporting staffs to survive. Some communities have cross-ownership of media, but only because those arrangements predate the ban or have won waivers from it.

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. This month, the FCC gave Tribune waivers of at least two years from the cross-ownership rule, the final regulatory hurdle to closing its $8.2 billion deal with Chicago financier Sam Zell to go private by the end of the year.

The Republican-led FCC has been trying to relax or abolish the ownership rule, saying the Internet and pay TV have altered the media market. Those efforts have been set back by court rulings and congressional objections.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked Martin point-blank yesterday: "Will you agree today" to delay the vote?

"No," Martin responded.

Senate opposition to Martin's position is not strictly partisan. Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, scolded Martin, saying, "I still don't see why you have to force this thing to a head on Dec. 18. I would plead with you to take a little more time."

A number of senators criticized Martin on other issues as well, questioning the FCC's preparations for the transition to digital television, its effectiveness in expanding the availability of high-speed Internet connections and the agency's lack of transparency when making decisions.

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