BOB GARFIELD: The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was on Capitol Hill this week at a hearing to reconfirm him as FCC chairman. Republican Kevin Martin has been criticized for being too political to be a fair-minded regulator. But the hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee was polite, and there seems little doubt that Martin will be reconfirmed.
Still, lawmakers took the chance to express their displeasure with current FCC policies. Jessica Smith was there to cover that hearing for us. Jessica, there was a bit of a showdown over media concentration at the hearings, but before we get to that, just please, review how we got to where we are. It started, I gather, with Martin's predecessor, Michael Powell.
JESSICA SMITH: That's right, Bob. Powell and Martin reportedly did not get along, but that was a personality thing. Ideologically, when it came to relaxing media ownership rules, they were pretty much on the same page. It just wasn't the same page as Congress.
So when the FCC voted in 2003 to adopt rule changes that would have allowed companies much greater ownership of various media outlets in a single market, there was an outpouring of anger from Congress. The Senate voted to disapprove the rules. And public groups took the FCC to court, which ultimately overturned the FCC's rules, or rather, sent them back and told the commissioners to make a better case.
BOB GARFIELD: So that predated Kevin Martin's chairmanship. In terms of cross ownership and the rest, what has happened on his watch?
JESSICA SMITH: Nothing. It's pretty much been status quo.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So this gets us to Tuesday's hearing. The issue continues to ruffle feathers, it seems.
JESSICA SMITH: Yeah. And it's senators on both sides of the aisle who are concerned. Some say media concentration is antithetical to free flow of information. This is a Democrat from North Dakota,
SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: Would you agree with me that we have seen very substantial concentration in almost every area of the media in recent areas?
MAN: In the recent years, we've seen--we see more concentrations, since the 1996 Act passed in which the Commission changed some of those rules; there's been significant increases.
SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: Do you believe that increased concentration, in most cases, would likely be moving against the issue of localism, and that localism, with respect to broadcasting and the use of the airwaves that belong to all of the American people, localism is essential and center to the notion of what broadcasting is about?
BOB GARFIELD: Localism, Jessica?
JESSICA SMITH: Localism means local content. There's a fear that too much network ownership is eroding local news content. For example, the station in the Midwest that's long offered regular hog price reports, but then a big chain takes it over and cuts out the hog reports. Or maybe a big network buys a local station and cuts down on local news reporting because it's cheaper to use nationally syndicated pieces.
Now, the SEC was looking into this. They were doing a study on localism. And at the hearing this week Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, asked Martin whatever happened to that study. Here's Martin's response.
FCC CHAIRMAN KEVIN MARTIN: That was never completed by Chairman Powell when I took over as chairman. It was already supposed to have been completed. I think we had--we had--the commissioner had originally promised to do that by the end of--
BOB GARFIELD: You kind of want to wince. You can see Martin leaning into Boxer's left hook.
JESSICA SMITH: Yeah. Suddenly Boxer held up a copy of that very FCC report in her hand, and she asked Martin if he'd ever seen it. He said no.
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: Well, I'm going to ask you to please go back after you look at it again. I'm going to ask all the other commissioners to tell me if they ever saw this report, because, according to it, local ownership--this is a quote, "adds almost five and one half minutes of local news and over three minutes of local on-location news. That's over five minutes for each 30-minute local news broadcast. In the course of a year this means locally-owned stations provide over 33 more hours of regional news, news that's directly relevant and important to viewers." Now, this isn't national security, for God's sakes.
FCC CHAIRMAN KEVIN MARTIN: [LAUGHS] [CLEARS THROAT]
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: I mean, this is important information. So I don't understand who deep-sixed this thing. And I want to get to the bottom of it and find out if any commissioners saw this.
BOB GARFIELD: She's implying that the FCC did a study, found out that media concentration deprives Americans of satisfactory broadcast news and public affairs coverage of their communities, and then buried the findings for political reasons.
JESSICA SMITH: Well, that's what it looks like. And two days after the hearing I saw some news that said FCC managers ordered staff to destroy all copies of this report.
Now, one FCC critic I spoke to says this could be really embarrassing to Martin. And this could undermine Martin's continued effort to relax the rules. The timing is also pretty important because this report has emerged just as the FCC is launching a series of hearings around the country to find out what the public has to say on the issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Score a political point for the Democrats. But, at one point in the hearing, Martin himself seemed to distance himself from the big media love affair of his predecessor.
JESSICA SMITH: I would call it a fumbling effort to save face or avoid confrontation when Dorgan asked him if he was concerned or if it gives him pause that the commission's 2003 ruling would allow one company to own eight radio stations, three TV stations, the daily newspaper and the cable company in one market. Here's Martin's response:
FCC CHAIRMAN KEVIN MARTIN: Y--yes, it gives me pause, and I'm not saying--I'm not so sure I would even concede that I was comfortable with, with the decision when we made the decision previously.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Didn't he--didn't he vote for the 2003 rule change?
JESSICA SMITH: Yes, he did.
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: [LAUGHS] All right, Jessica. Well, thank you very much.
JESSICA SMITH: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jessica Smith covered this week's FCC Confirmation Hearing on Capitol Hill.
A few days after the hearing, Chairman Martin sent a letter to Senator Boxer regarding the pesky issue of that buried report. He repeated that no one on his staff had seen the report, nor were they aware of it, but conceded, quote, "it appears to cover issues relevant to both our open localism proceeding and our recently commenced media ownership proceeding."
Martin emphasized that the report had been entered into the record and would be made publicly available to the media