Battle of the Chairmen

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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin faces increasing opposition to a vote on media ownership rules from Free Press, Moveon.org, and a bunch of Democratic senators, including current presidential candidate Barack Obama and former candidate John Kerry.

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee has even vowed to schedule a mid-December hearing, at which they wants Martin and the other commissioners to weigh in, a move tailored to discourage the chairman from voting by mid-December on ownership rules revises.

My guess is that the chairman (of the FCC, not the committee) will try for the vote, anyway, though I may be in the minority on that point. So far, his timetable is on track, with the Seattle public ownership hearing Friday (Nov. 9),  following the Oct. 31 localism hearing in Washington, D.C.

Martin can listen politely to the Senators, as he apparently has in private in the past few days. But if he has the votes and the will, it may take the just-dropped bill by Senator Byron Dorgan, which effectively blocks a December vote,  to keep this FCC courier from his self-appointed rounds, which are to deliver some kind of regulatory relief in line with his and other FCC Republicans’ belief that the marketplace is full of competitors and broadcasters could use some help serving the public they are uniquely chartered to serve.

It’s hard to blame Martin for trying to get the rewrite done, though it might have made more sense to wrap up the separate localism proceeding separately beforehand to remove a procedural criticism that has become a cudgel for his opponents.

At a hearing on media ownership in the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday, there was the sort of Alice in Wonderland moment of a broadcaster and newspaper owner arguing passionately against removing the crossownerhip ban, while an academic steeped in ownership studies was arguing passionately for lifting it.

But at the end of the day it was clear that Democratic legislators had an "off with his head" look in their eyes, and that the Martin-led FCC and Congress could be heading for a "blink" moment.

If that does mean no vote on ownership rules this year, it probably isn’t the end of the world since those changes will be taken to court in a Philadelphia minute by activists anyway, and the process extended five years past the 2003 attempt by Chairman Michael Powell to rewrite the rules.

Still, if a majority of FCC commissioners support a particular rewriting of the rules that they think can pass muster with the courts, that is what the Congress itself  asked the FCC to do and now seems intent on preventing. 

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