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FCC's Martin takes on a delicate post

Thu, 03/17/2005 - 7:00pm
James S. Granelli, Jube Shiver

The new chairman will lead the agency in regulating telecom and media at a tricky time

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

All Rights Reserved

Los Angeles Times

March 17, 2005 Thursday

Home Edition

Kevin J. Martin, who was named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday, is taking on one of this town's toughest jobs as new technologies and changing mores threaten to outpace the agency's ability to regulate telecommunications and the media.

From crafting rules on what constitutes indecency on television to deciphering what constitutes a telephone call, Martin will lead the FCC through a range of political, regulatory and even moral quagmires likely to keep the agency under a public microscope.

Leading the five-member commission has long been a delicate government post, but Martin takes over at a particularly tricky time. He will have to police bawdy behavior on the airwaves, rule on several huge telecom mergers, oversee a nationwide transition to digital television, tackle media consolidation and figure out how to regulate Internet and wireless phone service.

The boyish-looking Martin is widely viewed as a free-market conservative who supports tougher fines against broadcasters that air indecent content, backs light regulation of the telecommunications industry and doesn't oppose consolidation in the media industry.

Many view the 38-year-old lawyer and former Bush campaign aide as more conciliatory and better able to manage the FCC's challenges than outgoing Chairman Michael K. Powell, who is scheduled to leave the agency today.

Martin, who joined the commission in 2001, clashed on key votes with Powell, his fellow Republican.

"Kevin Martin is smart, committed, politically well-connected and knows the FCC, [but] he has his work cut out for him," said Kevin Werbach, an assistant law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former FCC official. "It's almost impossible to be FCC chairman for any length of time without something blowing up in your face."

Beyond a brief statement, Martin declined to comment.

On Wednesday, he got an early taste of the criticism he is likely to face in coming months.

His support for allowing further consolidation of media companies and for taking a bigger role in deciding what's indecent on television is "cause for concern to not only creative artists, but more importantly, to the American public," said Jonathan Rintels of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.

Martin has urged that the FCC fine broadcasters on a "per utterance" basis, increasing the potential violations they commit. Although he concurred with last year's $3.5-million settlement with Viacom Inc. over indecency violations involving radio host Howard Stern and others, Martin expressed reservations that it didn't include enough deterrents.

His appointment "is, sadly, a victory for the forces of so-called decency," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington. "They have succeeded in establishing a new litmus test for the FCC chair — someone who will be at the forefront of monitoring programming."

That, said Jan LaRue of Concerned Women of America, is a good thing and "means the president is responding to the American people who want to see decency enforced on radio and television. We are tired of being told if you don't like what's on TV you can block it."

President Bush, who appointed Martin to the post, is expected to fill the vacancy created by Powell's departure as early as today. He could name two candidates, with the second taking over for Republican Kathleen Q. Abernathy, whose term expired last year but who can serve until her replacement is confirmed.

The two most likely candidates, commission and industry insiders said, are Rebecca A. Klein, a former Bush aide and former chairwoman of the Texas Public Utility Commission, and Washington lawyer Earl Comstock, a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

By law, no more than three members of the FCC can be from the same political party. Under Powell, that meant most votes on contentious issues were 3 to 2, with the Democrats in the minority.

But Martin was not afraid to break ranks with the Republican majority, as he did two years ago on phone competition rules.

"I think Kevin is very practical and solution-oriented," said former FCC Commissioner Susan Ness. "He has demonstrated a welcome independence."

Particularly on telecom issues, Martin appears to be looking for broader solutions instead of the piecemeal approach that the commission has used so often to plug holes in telephone regulations. AT&T Corp. general counsel James W. Cicconi said many issues had been on the FCC's agenda "for some time, but remain unaddressed."

And the frequent split votes in the last few years haven't given the industry or state regulators much confidence that FCC decisions will stick.

"The single biggest issue is the lack of a clear voice from the FCC," said California Public Utilities Commission member Susan P. Kennedy.

Others said Martin's ability to build a consensus would be key to his success. Martin "will lead the agency in resolving the central policy issue of our new century — advancing innovation and investment in broadband ... networks, applications and equipment," said James C. Smith, an SBC senior vice president.

Referring to the votes needed to pass rules, former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said: "The first obligation of any chairman is to learn to count to three."

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