Here's a quick question. What Charlottean in Washington, D.C., has recently been called "a terrible administrator," "deceptive," "arrogant," and "more devoted to corporate profits than to the public good"? Hint: it's the same person who, as one of his colleagues described him, changed important proposals "in the dead of night" in order "to cook the books," which led to "a monumental mistake"?
Give up? It's Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin. If you didn't guess correctly, it's not really your fault -- particularly if you rely on the daily newspaper to keep you up to date. How would you have known that a local boy made good (or bad, depending on your views) has been all over the news in Washington the past month or so? And how would you have been able to comment publicly on an important change in FCC regulations, which Martin has been pushing for months? Not by reading the Charlotte Observer, that's for sure.
Here's what happened. Former Charlottean Martin, who became chair of the FCC in 2001 at age 38, last week rammed through the overthrow of a 32-year-old commission ban on newspapers owning radio or TV stations in the same city. The new "relaxation," as Martin called it, passed on a 3-2 party-line vote after a rancorous meeting. The new regulation allows a newspaper to merge with a radio or TV station in the nation's top 20 media markets (Charlotte, at number 25, is not included), as long as the TV station isn't one of the top-four-rated in that city. Various existing newspaper-television conglomerations, such as in Myrtle Beach or Tampa, will be allowed to continue.
The Observer ran an Associated Press story last week, buried deep in the business section, announcing the FCC decision, under a teaser about a "minor loosening of rules." Considering the story's tone and placement in the paper, you'd have thought the FCC move was no more important than a change in office décor. What the Observer referred to as a "minor loosening of rules" would, in effect, let Rupert Murdoch come into, say, Atlanta, and buy up the daily paper, the alternative weekly, the city's top radio station, and a TV station, which he would then be free to turn into the city's top dog. It's called media consolidation, and it is, in simplest turns, the enemy of economic competition, creativity and diversity on the airwaves, local ownership, and community responsibility or involvement by the media.
Even more surprising than the Observer's downplaying of the story -- especially considering that paper's penchant for highlighting news about former Charlotteans -- is the absence of reporting beforehand on the controversies Martin stirred up in the weeks leading up to last week's vote. Those controversies created a slew of new enemies for Martin and landed him in front of a U.S. Senate committee.
The fights revolved around Martin's timing and his high-handed, secretive "management style." Lawmakers and public interest groups had expected the FCC's review of media ownership rules to continue into next year. Martin, though, speeded up the process in October, hurrying to hold the final two public hearings with minimal notice and proposing a final vote last Tuesday, just a week after public comments were due at the FCC.
On Dec. 13, Martin endured three hours of intense questioning from the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, with lawmakers accusing him of rushing to help big media companies at the public's expense. Members of the committee, including Republicans, asked Martin to delay the vote until the FCC could complete a pending review of ways to ensure that broadcasters serve their local communities and take steps to increase radio/TV station ownership by women and minorities. Martin essentially told the Senate committee to take a hike. He no doubt felt comfortable brushing off Congress since the White House let it be known before the hearing that Bush would veto any attempt to undo the FCC's vote (which hadn't even taken place yet).
As if he hadn't angered enough people, Martin went on to create new loopholes at the last minute to allow more wavers for new paper-broadcast combinations. Those "dead of night" moves infuriated the FCC's two Democrats, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, who accused Martin of deliberately skewing the process. Adelstein said, "Anybody who thinks our processes are open, thoughtful or deliberative should think twice in light of these nocturnal escapades."
Martin's decision to promote the welfare of big corporations over the public good didn't exactly come as a surprise to those who've followed his career. The young FCC honcho is a so-called "free market" ideologue, with conservative GOP credentials out the wazoo. A telecommunications lawyer, Martin was part of the legal team that handled the 2000 Florida ballot aftermath for the GOP. His wife, Catherine, a Bush assistant on economic policy, is a former adviser to Dick Cheney.
You may not agree that Martin's actions, and the controversies they caused, are deplorable. You may even be proud that a Charlottean has that much clout in D.C. But whether you agree with my take on Martin or not, you at least should have been able to find out about it in your daily newspaper. You weren't, though, but now you know. Happy New Year!