Meet the New Boss

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

When FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced his resignation this past January, the response was near-deafening silence. Powell, previously best known as the general/secretary of state's son, was marked by a scattershot, frequently irresponsible series of engagements with issues that somehow managed to upset players on every side of the ideological divide. Difficult as it may sound, Powell pushed through scheme after scheme that agonized, simultaneously, both media and opponents of media consolidation on all sides of the ideological divide.

Powell's reign can hardly be called successful, even by his supporters. His concerted effort to relax regulations in order to invite media conglomerates to expand their reach to monopolistic proportions inspired a populist reaction in the public and was summarily shot down in federal court. His arbitrary fining policies for incidents of alleged indecency on radio and broadcast television have also met with widespread derision, particularly when it was learned that just one organization, L. Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council, provided more than 99 percent of the complaints inspiring Powell's campaign; a campaign, incidentally, that netted more than $8 million in fines last year, up from a mere $48,000 in the year before Powell's chairmanship commenced.

But as the Quiet Beatle sang, all things must pass, and on so too, Powell's chairmanship. On March 18th, President Bush nominated 38-year-old Kevin J. Martin, a former adviser to Kenneth Starr and political operative for George W. Bush in Texas, to replace Powell as head of the FCc= Martin, who has occupied a Republican seat on the commission since July 2001, brings a mixed bag of votes and public comments to the table, some of which are likely to be a marked improvement from his predecessor, while others remain a cause for considerable concern.

Mediaweek observed that Martin "arrives on the job with a reputation as a brilliant regulator, an attentive listener and an advocate of even tougher stands against broadcast indecency than his predecessor Michael Powell." A TV Week report added that Martin "has strong conservative credentials and can be expected to advance the Bush administration's objective to deregulate the market as much as is practicable."

While Martin is certainly close to the Bush administration and generally favors deregulation, the truth is actually quite a bit more complicated than these quotes might imply. While Martin did support Powell's 2003 attempt to allow media conglomerates to buy up larger chunks of the media landscape, he nevertheless evinced some appreciation for both sides of the issue. As he said at the time of Powell's failed deregulation push:

"The record contained strong evidence on both sides of this issue. I believe the affiliates made a compelling case as to why a national limit needs to be retained. I agree that a balance between the affiliates and the networks is important to maintaining localism, and thus I did not support proposals in the record to eliminate the cap altogether. Yet, the networks also made persuasive arguments that a 35 percent cap is not necessary – in particular, that we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that the two networks currently reaching over 40 percent of the country have caused actual and significant harm today."

Certainly, the proof was in the pudding of Martin's unfortunate "affirmative" vote, but his concern for local control over media behemoths remains a potentially encouraging sign. As a commissioner, Martin repeatedly defended local broadcasters' demands for more say over their contracts with the major networks and therefore directly contradicted the big-media friendly stance of his boss. According to Broadcasting & Cable, "It appears that Martin favors letting owners control two or three stations in more markets, eliminating the ban on crossownership of stations and newspapers in the same town. That deregulation is most sought by network affiliates and independent station owners."

This emphasis on local ownership and local responsibility is related to another controversial topic: Powell's affection for massive indecency fines. In some respects, it appears to be a double-edged sword. Overall, Martin appears to favor allowing local network affiliates to provide their own checks over the control of programming, rather than giving the parent networks and the government control over content, as Powell favored. What's more, according to a fact sheet issued by the Benton Foundation, Martin "supports the network affiliates' request to clarify that FCC rules protect a local broadcaster's ability to refuse to air programming that is 'unsuitable for its local community.'"

Sadly, Martin's appointment will likely do little to curb Powell's war on "indecency" – some might call it "free expression" – and may make it even more censorious. As a commissioner, Martin frequently criticized some of Powell's fining decisions as being too lenient, while calling for fines to be levied "per utterance," not per incident. As a New York Times report noted, "Mr. Martin has taken the most aggressive approach in indecency cases, dissenting from a series of opinions in which the agency either found no violation or did not issue what he believed was a significant enough punishment. For those votes, he was strongly endorsed by some conservative organizations."

Perhaps Martin's most striking difference from his predecessor is his political talent. As Cable & Broadcasting's Bill McConnell told NPR's Bob Garfield, "Powell rankled a lot of his colleagues because he would sort of keep his ideas close to his chest while they were under development, and then just lay them on the table when it was time for a vote. Kevin, himself, bristled under that sort of regime, and a couple of times he reached out to his Democratic colleagues on the commission to really, essentially, perform a coup against Michael Powell."

Take Martin's political connections to the Wall Street White House and his votes for media concentration, then combine them with his crusade against indecency and his sympathy for local control; the result is likely a commission led further into the contradictions of business-vs.-values conservatives. "Powell, Martin, and the corporate-friendly GOP have green-lighted big media companies to capture near-total market control over cable and broadcast television. Now, the same bunch is upset over the low-cost, high-ratings schlock that media conglomerates pump into the marketplace," said Ben Scott, policy director at Free Press. "Martin must soon decide if he's a free market Republican or a local-values Republican. When it comes to regulating the media, you can't have it both ways."

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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