WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell took aim at his critics Tuesday, accusing them of exaggerating the effect of his media-ownership reforms to advance their own political agendas.
Separately, the FCC exempted "The Howard Stern Show" from the agency's equal-time rule, clearing the way for the New York shock jock to interview actor Arnold Schwarzenegger without giving air time to the 135 other California gubernatorial candidates.
In a speech to Republican business leaders at Washington's Capitol Club, Powell expressed surprise over the furor created by the FCC's June 2 vote to relax long-standing rules governing broadcast consolidation.
A federal appeals court temporarily blocked the rules from taking effect last week, and lawmakers are moving to overturn the most controversial change, which raised to 45% from 35% the portion of U.S. households a TV broadcaster may reach.
"The enormous energy in this debate is somewhat odd," Powell said. "Is TV really going to be improved? Is democracy's survival really lying between 35% and 45%?"
Powell suggested that opponents of his reforms -- from the National Rifle Assn. to antiwar demonstrators -- are motivated by a desire to see their own viewpoints better reflected on television and in the media.
"Beware ownership rules serving as a stalking horse for viewpoint discrimination," Powell said. "Are we really talking about concentration? Are we really talking about diversity? Or are we talking about the fundamental bias in the media? People love a monopoly if it's your monopoly, if it happens to share the views you share."
Powell advised fellow Republicans to resist the urge to call for greater government regulation over television.
He said that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine -- which required broadcasters to cover both sides of controversial issues -- helped spawn the rise of conservative radio and Fox News.
He also cited the exemption request by Howard Stern and radio giant Infinity Broadcasting, who have said they feared lawsuits if they proceeded with an interview of Schwarzenegger. "That's not discourse in America," Powell said.
A Schwarzenegger spokesman said the candidate, who had earlier planned to appear on the show, would be open to a new invitation.
In making its decision, the FCC said Stern's show, known for topless interviews and raunchy diatribes, was a "bona fide news interview program."
The exemption was originally created for shows such as "Meet the Press," but has been expanded in recent years to include programs such as "Jerry Springer" and "Politically Incorrect."
Media watchdog groups criticized the Stern decision. "It's outrageous," said Andrew Schwartzman, head of Media Access Project.
Schwartzman's group is suing to overturn the media-ownership reforms and won a court-ordered stay of the rules last week.
The Senate is expected to pass legislation that would retain the 35% cap, matching a similar bill that has already passed the House.
Meanwhile, lobbyists on both sides are stepping up efforts.
Opponents of the new rules say they have 100,000 signatures on an online petition to support their position.
"With the rule changes on hold, we now have the opportunity to void them for good -- before they ever take effect," read an e-mail sent to lawmakers by Media Education Foundation, a Massachusetts watchdog group.
But newspaper industry lobbyists also are working furiously to preserve a new rule that permits mergers between newspapers and TV stations in the same market.
"Even if you have contacted your senator already, it is important to call again to hammer home the message before the committee vote," read a Sept. 3 letter from the Newspaper Assn. of America to members. (Tribune Co., parent of The Times and owner of KTLA Channel 5, is lobbying to keep the new rule.)
At the same time, TV networks CBS, NBC and Fox launched an advertising campaign last week aimed at discouraging lawmakers from rolling back the national cap.