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Media Face Grilling From Copps

Commissioner wants his own ownership field hearings 11/24/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Frustrated that media consolidation isn't getting more attention outside of Washington, Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps plans to take the unusual, perhaps unprecedented step of holding his own field hearings to examine the impact of proposed ownership deregulation.

"We need much wider participation," Copps said. "This is not an inside-the-Beltway issue," he told reporters last week.

Copps has repeatedly called on the FCC to hold ownership hearings, but Chairman Michael Powell is said to be adamantly opposed in order to focus on economic justification needed to satisfy judicial concerns about ownership restrictions. Powell-appointed Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree dismissed the need for new hearings in October.

A Powell spokesman said the public has already taken advantage of the commission's comment process, noting that half of the submissions came from individuals, but that, "if Commissioner Copps thinks something more can be gained from having hearings, he should feel free to do so."

Industry supporters of deregulation, however, say Copps's real aim is to delay Powell's timetable for voting on a new ownership rule by late spring or early summer. "Copps is going to the four-corners offense," said one media lobbyist, referring to the basketball strategy of slowing down the game.

For his part, Copps says his hearings will not interrupt Powell's schedule. The Copps hearings could be conducted in January and February, which he said is plenty of time to add their input to the commission's review.

But Copps, who has said a complete discussion of the issue is more important than meeting Powell's timetable, may have additional ways to stall deregulation once Jonathan Adelstein becomes the FCC's second Democrat. If the two pair up as many expect, only one of the two other Republican commissioners would have to defect from a proposal crafted by Powell and the FCC staff. Adelstein hasn't expressed his views on media ownership, but, as a former aide to Democratic Senate leader Tom Dashle, he is believed to share most liberals' reservations about deregulation.

Although the GOP commissioners are generally favorable toward deregulation, Kevin Martin has not been afraid to challenge Powell when details of a proposal, even nuances, don't go his way. For instance, Martin opposed Powell's decision to required digital tuners in most TV sets by 2007. Martin also wanted to establish "plug-and-play" requirements making DTV sets work with cable without the need for set-top boxes.

The FCC currently is considering changes to a host of media-ownership rules, including the cap on one station group's national TV-household reach, local broadcast/newspaper and radio/TV crossownership restrictions, and local radio- and TV-ownership limits.

Media ownership is too important to leave to Washington lobbyists and interest groups, Copps said, because control of the media impacts the information citizens get and their ability to make judgments needed to participate in a democratic society.

To get the word out, Copps has called on media companies to beef up reporting on the ownership-rule review.

In recent weeks, he has met with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, whose parent company is a leader in the fight to eliminate the ban on crossownership of broadcast stations and local newspapers. Soon he'll meet with counterparts from the co-owned Los Angeles Times.

Regardless of corporate policy, Copps said, media companies have a public-interest obligation to cover the story.

Copps said he will approach his fellow commissioners on the idea and is optimistic that some will join him. Copps said he has not given up hope that Powell will reconsider his opposition.

The two remaining commissioners, Republicans Kathleen Abernathy and Martin, appear far from committed, though.

"Commissioner Martin is concerned about delaying the review process but is not opposed to hearings," said his aide. Commissioner Abernathy is "open to the idea," said one of her staffers.

FCC observers could recall no previous instances in which commissioners conducted their own hearings.

But Copps, a former Senate aide, may be taking his example from Capitol Hill, where minority parties occasionally hold hearings on issues neglected by the controlling party.

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