When It Comes to Selling Media Consolidation, FCC Chair Kevin Martin Hasn't Learned Much

From the moment FCC chair Kevin Martin's plan to relax media ownership rules first leaked to the public, I've wondered what sort of substance the new chairman might be smoking.

After all, news about his proposed changes, including relaxing the rule barring companies from owning a major newspaper and TV stations in the same market, hit the public before the commission even had its last public meeting on ownership issues. That meeting was in Seattle on Friday, leaving little doubt that it had negligible impact on the rules proposal Martin released Tuesday.

Martin's predecessor, Michael "son-of-Colin" Powell, seemed to provide the perfect lesson on how not to sell media consolidation: comment periods and limited public meetings which have no impact; rules which seem to benefit big business vocally opposed by consumer groups and the Democratic commissioners; complex rules rushed through an approval process with no allies in Congress.

Presidential candidates have already criticized Martin's leaked goal of passing a rule change by 2007's end and Congress seems poised to pass legislation delaying a vote until the New Year. Still, Martin has made his proposal officially available, and now it seems obvious how he was going to try slipping more media consolidation past a public steadfastly opposed to it.

By disguising it as a cure for what ails the newspaper industry.

"Newspapers in financial difficulty often have little choice but to scale back newsgathering to cut costs," Martin wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday in the New York Times. "Allowing cross-ownership may help to forestall the erosion in local news coverage by enabling companies that won both newspapers and broadcast stations to share some costs."

The chairman's proposal sounds modest; allow a company to own a newspaper and TV station only in the top 20 markets, only if eight independently owned TV stations and newspapers exist after the ownership change and only if he TV station is not among the top four stations in the market.

Martin's problem is that big media companies are doing the exact opposite of what he's advocating. Belo Corp. recently moved to separate its broadcast and newspaper divisions, to isolate the more profitable TV stations from the problematic newspaper companies. Wall Street loves the idea and Media General generated some controversy by announcing it would not follow suit.

I also wonder what data Martin is using to justify such a move. One of the reasons the FCC is supposed to take so much time in considering these rules changes, is that they amass a mountain of data to prove why a rule exists or should be modified. This step is crucial -- it can keep the FCC from drafting rules which are later rejected by the courts, which is what happened to the rules revamp led by Powell back in 2004.

Cynic that I am, I wonder if Martin hasn't drafted a rule with little empirical proof -- why else would his op-ed say "allowing cross-ownership may" help the problem, instead of stating the case more definitively? -- so that subsequent court challenges can knock down the guidelines he's created. Democratic commissioner Michael Copps theorizes it will be easier for the commission to grant waivers in smaller markets under Martin's new rules.

Two things are obvious: Martin wants to cast this rules change as a boon to press freedom -- something I don't think the public is about to swallow. And in drafting a proposal criticized by broadcasters, the newspaper industry, consumer advocates, politicians and even the commission's Democratic members, he didn't learn much from Powell's example.

Watching him try to tapdance this past a war-weary public and election-year Congress should be more fun than watching Mitt Romney take a question from the Snowman during the next YouTube debate.