BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. High drama was the order of the day at the FCC last month after a puzzling vote on telephone deregulation. It left critics, lobbyists and probably the commissioners themselves wondering what will happen in the upcoming crucial vote on broadcast deregulation -- specifically that concerning media ownership? So far the momentum has been toward easing ownership limits favored by FCC chairman Michael Powell who was hand-picked by the Bush administration, and his position seemed certain to prevail with three Republicans and only two Democrats on the five-person commission. But that was until the unexpected vote on February 20th when Republican commission Kevin Martin voted with -- the Democrats! Martin, a commissioner since the spring of 2001, may be positioning himself as a swing voter, and if that's the case, then broadcast deregulation may be up for grabs. Joining us now on the line is Cable World senior editor Alicia Mundy. Alicia, welcome back to the big show.
ALICIA MUNDY: Thank you, I'm glad to be back again.
BOB GARFIELD: Why don't we begin with just a description of the recent vote and what was at stake here.
ALICIA MUNDY: The recent vote at the FCC -- it's very complex -- it has to do with telephone regulation. Basically it came out as a vote in favor of ATT over the local bells. It doesn't help the Bell Telephones that much and as proof of that, within hours of the vote on February 20th at the FCC telecom stocks tanked about 15 billion dollars.
BOB GARFIELD:It was an intriguing scenario because the swing vote was the Republican member Kevin Martin who voted with the two Democratic commissioners and he of course will also be the swing vote, presumably, in the upcoming decision on broadcast deregulation.
ALICIA MUNDY: Nobody can explain what's going on here. Kevin Martin is a very conservative Republican. The two Democrats he voted with are not conservative Democrats. They're your basic New Dealer Democrats. What you've got is a situation where everyone in Washington wants to know is this a sign of things to come for all of the big media ownership issues?
BOB GARFIELD:One of the other things that people in Washington seem to be asking is where was the White House during all of this. What can we divine from the fact that the White House sat on its hands and let Commissioner Powell undergo such a public loss?
ALICIA MUNDY: Frankly the White House has been AWOL on telecom policy since day one, which is not real great, because that's 17 percent of our economy; you, you'd like them to be a little more engaged. But people thought the White House just had other issues to deal with. The way this happened, however, with this vote -- it appears that the White House may have been -- how shall we say? -- pro-actively disengaged. Carl Rove is very close to the chief lobbyist for AT&T which again is the company that's probably the big winner on that vote. In fact the wife of one of the main AT&T officials in Washington, DC was until a couple of weeks ago, I am told, working with the White House on legislative affairs. So there's a real question here as to whether the White House was sending a subtle signal or not so subtle signal that it prefers Kevin Martin. That Kevin Martin's wife works at the White House and was this the White House's way of basically cutting Michael Powell's knees out from under him?
BOB GARFIELD:Well as we look forward to the FCC's action on broadcast deregulation, the further consolidation of media properties hangs in the balance. Is there anything we can divine from what happened in the telecom case about whether the White House will support Chairman Powell and his deregulatory-minded position or whether they're going to once again leave him swinging in the wind?
ALICIA MUNDY: Well that's a good question, because early on the White House made it clear they wanted Michael Powell to deregulate. So now no one knows where the White House is coming from here. In anticipation of this interview I went back and looked at some of Kevin Martin's statements and votes that had seemed odd, and at one point he appeared to be positioning himself as the consumer commissioner at the FCC. You could see Kevin Martin standing in the way of deregulation here which could be very interesting, and I think he's a very ambitious young man who believes in his heart that he probably should have been chairman of the FCC. I think he feels he's very smart and that he should probably have the job. And it's very hard to tell what he genuinely believes in except in, in the vote for the moment, and that makes him scary if you're trying to plot these things out.
BOB GARFIELD:One thing that is clear is that what seemed to be a near certainty just a few weeks ago, that the FCC would eventually rule for more deregulation and therefore for more media consolidation, it's not clear cut at all any more is it?
ALICIA MUNDY: I don't think we had any idea we were going to be having this much fun; I mean everybody's going back to check the cards they're holding in their hands right now to see if they're -still have them.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Right. Well Alicia Mundy, as always, thank you very much.
ALICIA MUNDY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Cable World's senior editor Alicia Mundy is also a contributor to editor & publisher and the Columbia Journalism Review. [MUSIC]