WASHINGTON -- Facing growing criticism of his agenda and tactics, a defiant Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, refused senators' requests Thursday to delay a vote next week on his plan to loosen restrictions on owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same city.
Martin endured three hours of aggressive questioning from the Senate Commerce Committee, with members accusing him of rushing to help big media companies at the public's expense.
"If you move ahead and do it, you're a braver man than I am," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). She accused Martin of having an "obsession" with changing media ownership rules that was distracting the FCC from the more important issue of guiding the nation's 2009 transition to digital television.
Amid complaints from within the commission and Capitol Hill about a lack of openness at the FCC, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called for Congress next year to overhaul the agency's procedures and alter its deregulatory bent.
"I am becoming increasingly concerned that the FCC appears to be more concerned about making sure the policies they advocate serve the needs of the companies that they regulate and their bottom lines rather than the public interest," Rockefeller said. "We cannot allow this to happen."
Martin was grilled about pushing the FCC to vote Tuesday on his plan to ease a 32-year-old restriction on the ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. Martin wants to lift the so-called cross-ownership ban in the top 20 U.S. markets and allow such combinations in smaller markets if the FCC determines that they would be in the public interest.
Critics say the FCC chairman is moving too fast and failing to take into account public opposition to the plan. Asked by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) if he would delay the vote, Martin replied, "No."
Martin, a Republican, said the FCC had been reviewing its ownership rules for 18 months and that the commission needed to act to help the financially struggling newspaper industry.
He said he was open to making revisions to his proposal, such as tightening what critics have called loose standards for determining if a newspaper/broadcast combination would produce more local news.
But when Kerry urged him to seek consensus on cross-ownership before voting on a rule change, Martin responded, "I'm not convinced on media ownership there ever will be consensus."
Lawmakers and public interest groups had expected the FCC's periodic review of its media ownership rules to extend into next year. But Martin accelerated the process in October, rushing to hold the final two public hearings with minimal notice and proposing to vote on a plan Tuesday, just a week after public comments were due at the FCC.
The moves outraged the FCC's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, as well as many members of Congress, who accused Martin of short-circuiting the process.
Fearing the consequences of more media consolidation, they said the FCC first should complete a long-pending review of ways to ensure that broadcasters serve their local communities and take steps to increase ownership of radio and TV stations by women and minorities.
The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved legislation last week that would force at least a six-month delay in the cross-ownership vote and summoned Martin and the other commissioners to testify.
"The FCC is poised to make some bad decisions, and it seems to me at this point only congressional oversight can get us back on track," Copps said, acknowledging that Martin had the votes on the five-member commission to approve the rule change.
After the FCC recently granted waivers to Tribune Co. of the cross-ownership rule in Los Angeles and four other cities, allowing it to close its $8.2-billion deal to go private by year-end, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said there was no reason to rush a vote on such a controversial issue.
"Why give us an argument to attack you all?" Lott said. "I would plead with you to take a little more time."
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times