Kevin Martin's Contentious Turn at Helm of FCC

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has come under fire from almost all quarters for the agenda he has set during his tenure at the commission. Does that mean he's doing something right? How is the chairman doing, and what have previous commissioners attempted and accomplished?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The Federal Communications Commission not only regulates broadcast, its decisions affect your cell phone, your internet access and your fire department.

Today, we begin an examination of the FCC with the profile of its Chairman Kevin Martin from NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY: The crowd in Seattle was angry. Last fall, Chairman Kevin Martin attended a public hearing there shortly before an FCC vote that loosen the rules on media consolidation. Seattle citizens were told about the hearing only a few days in advance.

That inspired the two Democratic commissioners to issue a joint statement saying this smells like mean spirit. The crowd clearly agreed.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Unidentified Woman: Sit down.

: No, I'm not done. No, I'm not (unintelligible). And I'll sit down in a second and then you'll have your chance tonight.

ULABY: Running the FCC is not a job for the weak of heart says Mark Fowler. He chaired the commission under President Reagan.

Mr. MARK FOWLER (Former FCC Chairman): I guess Kevin should probably look under his car every morning with a mirror.

ULABY: Just about FCC chairman has taken heat including Reed Hundt. He chaired the commission under President Clinton, back when Kevin Martin worked there as a legal adviser who specialized in telecom issues.

Mr. REED HUNDT (Former FCC Chairman): He is a very unflappable, very unemotional person in his job.

ULABY: Martin was named the FCC Chair almost three years ago by President Bush at the age of 38. He had served as a commissioner since 2001. Martin tends to be described as boyish looking; sandy haired with Harry Potter classes. His management style is somewhat less innocuous.

Mr. HUNDT: It's a very well known style now. It's quite closed, quite secretive, quite politicized, quite centralized.

ULABY: It's hard to get people at the FCC to talk on the record about Chairman Martin. Telecommunications is a fairly incestuous world with former staffers working as lobbyist and former lobbyist working as staffers.

No one wants to irritate a man described by Drew Clark as Nixonian(ph).

Mr. DREW CLARK (Senior Fellow, Center for Public Integrity): He's been extremely secretive. The agency has really ramped up the number of times that it seeks to exempt information from the freedom information act.

ULABY: Clack had to sue the FCC a few years ago when the group he worked for, the Center for, the Center for Public Integrity, tried to obtain information about how many Americans get broadband.

Mr. CLARK: I know that the commission does not like to make data publicly available.

ULABY: Kevin Martin declined to make himself available for the story and he apparently doesn't always talk to his fellow commissioners.

At a hearing last November, Republican Robert McDowell expressed frustration at the FCC's dysfunction.

Mr. ROBERT McDOWELL (Republican Federal Communications Commission Commissioner): Today's report has taken an interesting journey in the past few weeks and even the past few hours. For starters, it's about nine months overdue to congress. Then it appeared that the commission was going to ignore a mountain of evidence from independent analyst and prior commission findings to favor a solitary study.

ULABY: McDowell's boss has been called before congress to testify about inconsistent rule make making, problems with broadband deployment data and what critics call his favoritism of big telecoms.

Drew Clark says John Dingell, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has bombarded Kevin Martin with Dingell-grams.

Mr. CLARK: Which are these long detailed, rough, aggressive letters and it's no fun to be on the receiving side of a Dingell-gram.

ULABY: The Michigan Democrat spanked Martin publicly at a December hearing about media consolidation.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): We have witnessed too much snipping amongst commissioners and we've heard too many tales of short circuited decision-making processes. In some, the FCC appears to be broken.

ULABY: At a Senate hearing a week alter, California Democrat Barbara Boxer accused Martin of suppressing data that doesn't advance his agenda.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Chairman Martin, as you're well aware, in September '06, I made public two media ownership studies prepared by FCC staff at tax payers expense that were shoved in a draw because their conclusions ran counter to certain interest.

ULABY: Democrats, generally speaking, criticize Martin for being too anti-regulatory. Republicans criticize him for being too regulatory. Telecoms like AT&T and Verizon say Martin doesn't let them go far enough, and public interest crusaders say he lets them go too far.

Activist at a hearing last fall appeared as the FCC cheerleaders.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting) M-O-N-O-P-O-L-Y. Monopoly, monopoly gets up high.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ULABY: At stake, of course, are billions of industry dollars and the future of the way we communicate, all at a moment when we increasingly get information from nontraditional media. NBC TV is regulated, Google is not.

But even Martin's critiques agree he's been effective. Former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler says he's not a critic.

Mr. FOWLER: I may not agree with everything that Kevin has done, but I think he's a very quick study. He's very intelligent and I think he has some of his own ideas about the way broadcasting should be and he's trying to implement that vision.

ULABY: Kevin Martin has joked his vision was shaped by two formative experiences; fighting with his four siblings for the TV remote in rural North Carolina and leading the student government at the State University in Chapel Hill.

Martin attended Harvard law then he was the star associate at a powerhouse D.C. firm. Then, says Drew Clark, in 1999, Martin joined George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

Mr. CLARK: He was down there during the whole Florida recount and his wife has worked in Dick Cheney's office. And I guess I should also mention Kevin Martin worked for Ken Starr.

ULABY: Still, Clark says, partisan politics are less a defining feature of Kevin Martin's tenure than his relentless pressure on the cable industry. He has tried to cap cable growth, delayed industry mergers and attack cable pricing as he did before an audience at last month's consumer electronic show in Las Vegas.

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): When you look across the stretch of all the areas the commission regulates, we see a significant decrease in consumer prices in almost every area except one, and that's cable services.

ULABY: A number of FCC watchers suspects Martin's focus on cable prices is part of an attempt to push the industry into letting people buy only the channels they want. It's widely assumed this stand caters to conservatives who finds some cable content indecent. But former Republican FCC Chair Mark Fowler says it makes sense for this father of two.

Mr. FOWLER: He wants to see decent programming on the air. He wants to protect kids from unwholesome programming and we all share that, too. But, I guess -it's a big but. To have the government involved in weighing what goes out over the airwaves is something that I just don't believe belongs in a free society.

ULABY: Former Democratic FCC Chair Reed Hundt points to the FCC's fining week before last of hundreds of TV station for airing an old episode of "NYPD Blue" that showed a woman's bare bottom.

Hundt says Martin's priority instead should be keeping America ahead of the curve in wireless innovation.

Mr. HUNDT: He is doing what he want sot do, what he intends to do. It just happens to be the case that most people in America don't benefit and most people in America who understand his goals and methods are seriously, seriously in disagreement even shocked.

ULABY: But Kevin Martin may be counting on other people in America. He said to be contemplating a run for office in North Carolina when his term as FCC chairman ends.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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