Presidential candidate and Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wants Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin to take a series of intermediary steps before making the leap to rewrite media-ownership rules, saying that not to do so would be irresponsible.
In a letter to Martin Monday (see below), the senator asked the FCC chairman to "reconsider your proposed timeline, put out any specific change to the rules for public comment and review, move to establish an independent panel on minority and small-business media ownership and complete a proceeding on the responsibilities that broadcasters have to the communities in which they operate."
The letter came in response to the news last week that Martin had come up with a timetable for moving forward on the congressionally and court-mandated rule review, planning to put out his own proposals for media ownership rules Nov. 13, then letting the public comment for four weeks before holding a mid-November vote on the changes.
According to a source at the commission, he also planned to release a report on localism issues before the vote, although that is different from the separate localism proceeding Obama wants the FCC to complete.
Obama called "both the proposed timeline and the process irresponsible." He also said it was time "to put together an independent panel, as commissioner [Jonathan] Adelstein has recommended, to issue a specific proposal for furthering the goal of diversity in media ownership. I object to the agency moving forward to allow greater consolidation in the media market without first fully understanding how that would limit opportunities for minority, small business and women-owned firms."
Martin has said that he would not object to an independent panel making suggestions, and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition founder the Rev. Jesse Jackson has agreed to serve on such a panel. But Martin also said he did not think that should necessarily delay proceeding with the media-ownership rewrite, which has been underway for 18 months on rules that were stayed by a federal court three years ago.
Obama pointed out that this was not the first time he weighed in on the subject. He joined with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) back in June to write Martin asking that the commission launch and complete a separate proceeding on minority and small-business issues before completing the broader review.
He also weighed in last month at an FCC media-ownership hearing in Chicago in which he said the new rules should be ""promoting greater coverage of local issues and greater responsiveness of broadcasters to the communities they operate in," and that the FCC should "require greater FCC scrutiny and public input" on broadcast station-license renewals.
Following is the full text of Obama’s letter to Martin:
Dear Chairman Martin:
I am writing regarding your proposal to move forward aggressively with modifications to existing media ownership rules. According to press accounts, you intend to present specific changes to existing rules in November with a commission vote on that proposal -- whatever it may be – Dec. 18, 2007. I believe both the proposed timeline and process are irresponsible.
Minority-owned and operated newspapers and radio stations play a critical role in the African-American and Latino communities and bring minority issues to the forefront of our national discussion. However, the commission has failed to further the goals of diversity in the media and promote localism and, as a result, it is in no position to justify allowing for increased consolidation of the market. Moreover, 30 days of public review of a specific proposed change is insufficient to assess the effect that change would have on the media marketplace or the rationale on which any such proposal is based.
While the FCC did commission two studies on minority ownership in the round of 10 studies it ordered at the beginning of 2007, both suffered from the same problem -- inadequate data from which to make determinations on the status of minority media ownership or the causes for that status and ways to increase representation.
It is time to put together an independent panel, as commissioner Adelstein has recommended, to issue a specific proposal for furthering the goal of diversity in media ownership. I object to the agency moving forward to allow greater consolidation in the media market without first fully understanding how that would limit opportunities for minority, small business, and women owned firms.
I also object to the commission’s propensity to vet proposals through leaks to the press and lobbyists. The Government Accountability Office issued a report in September 2007 titled, “The FCC Should Take Steps to Ensure Equal Access to Rulemaking Information.” In that report, GAO found that: “Situations where some, but not all, stakeholders know what the FCC is considering for an upcoming vote undermine fairness and transparency of the process and constitute a violation of the FCC’s rules.” The report went on to state: “This imbalance of information is not the intended result of the Communications Act and it runs contrary to the principles of transparency and equal opportunity for participation established by law and to the FCC’s own rules that govern rulemaking.”
In the wake of that report, I find it disturbing that, according to The New York Times, the commission is considering repealing the newspaper and television cross-ownership rules. It is unclear what your intent is on the rest of the media-ownership regulations. Repealing the cross-ownership rules and retaining the rest of our existing regulations is not a proposal that has been put out for public comment; the proper process for vetting it is not in closed-door meetings with lobbyists or in selective leaks to The New York Times.
Although such a proposal may pass the muster of a federal court, Congress and the public have the right to review any specific proposal and decide whether or not it constitutes sound policy. And the commission has the responsibility to defend any new proposal in public discourse and debate.
This is not the first time I have communicated with the agency on this matter. Sen. Kerry and I wrote to you July 20, 2006, stating that the commission needed to address and complete a proceeding on issues of minority and small-business media ownership before taking up the wider media-ownership rules. Our request echoed an amendment adopted by the Senate Commerce Committee in June 2006. And last month, at an FCC hearing on media ownership held in Chicago, I requested that the FCC put out any specific changes that would be voted on in a new notice of proposed rulemaking so that the American people have an opportunity to review it.
In closing, I ask you to reconsider your proposed timeline, put out any specific change to the rules for public comment and review, move to establish an independent panel on minority and small-business media ownership and complete a proceeding on the responsibilities that broadcasters have to the communities in which they operate.
Sen. Barack Obama