WASHINGTON — The last time federal regulators tried to change the rules on how many media outlets companies could own, the effort bombed like a bad movie. The sequel appears to be headed for the same fate.
The Federal Communications Commission's examination of media ownership restrictions, moving along slowly but smoothly just a few weeks ago, has suddenly devolved into a mess similar to the one that doomed proposed rule changes in 2003. Activist groups have risen up in protest and some members of Congress are complaining about what they call the agency's flawed and rushed effort to help media giants at the expense of average Americans.
With the fate of Tribune Co.'s $8.2-billion deal to go private possibly hanging in the balance, the media ownership debate became mired in controversy after FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, unexpectedly pushed to wrap up the complicated process by year's end.
Last week, he unveiled a proposal to partially lift a ban on owning a newspaper and TV station in the same city. It was immediately lambasted by media companies for not going far enough and by public interest groups and Democrats on the commission for going too far -- and too fast.
"Congress and the thousands of American citizens we have talked to want a thoughtful and deliberate rule-making, not an alarming rush to judgment . . . designed to make sure that the chairman can deliver a generous gift for big media before the holidays," Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein said in a sharply worded statement. "For the rest of us: a lump of coal."
Four years ago, the FCC's partisan 3-2 vote to loosen media ownership restrictions sparked a huge public outcry. Outraged lawmakers quickly scaled back one of the major rule changes. A federal court halted the rest for not being properly justified and sent them back to the FCC to be rewritten.
Martin, a commissioner at the time, appeared to have learned from that debacle, presided over by his predecessor, Michael K. Powell. Martin cautiously launched the FCC's reconsideration of the rules last year and earned early praise from opponents of media consolidation for committing to hold half a dozen public hearings around the country. Powell held only one.
Martin moved deliberately to avoid inflaming a volatile debate that pitted media companies -- desperate for more flexibility in the face of Internet competition -- against public interest and minority groups, which argue that media concentration has led to a loss of diversity and local voices. The effort was gliding along under the radar, apparently headed well into 2008, before Martin abruptly altered the script last month.
First, he proposed that the FCC quickly wrap up the lengthy public-comment process, consider new rules he was still crafting and vote on them by Dec. 18. Then he unveiled his plan to allow so-called cross-ownership in the 20 largest U.S. markets. Although the proposed change is more limited than the broad loosening of ownership rules pushed by Powell, Martin's plan and timeline for approving it has been met with harsh criticism.
Martin said the FCC must wrap up its work and described his plan as a "relatively moderate change" to the rules. "I'm hopeful that it ends up changing the debate," he said of his limited proposal.
Although the plan should draw less fire on Capitol Hill than Powell's, Martin's "determination to rush this through will run into a lot of political heat," said Blair Levin, an analyst at brokerage Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. and a former FCC chief of staff.
Indeed, Martin's plot twist threatens to turn his attempt to craft a successful new episode in the media ownership debate into a rerun of the FCC's high-profile flop of 2003.
Copps and Adelstein are in open revolt. House and Senate committees plan to summon Martin to Capitol Hill to explain himself in the coming weeks. A growing group of Democrats and Republicans in Congress are threatening to block any quick FCC action. And the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that filed the successful suit against the 2003 rule changes, said it planned to challenge Martin's cross-ownership rule in court if the FCC approves it.
The AFL-CIO and MoveOn.- org have sent alerts to their members in recent weeks urging them to raise a ruckus. About 50 protesters converged on the FCC's headquarters before an Oct. 31 hearing, chanting such slogans as "We need democratization, not consolidation!"
"The way in which Martin has handled this has reignited the citizen groups," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project. "Their membership is riled up and there is a real sense of 'They're doing it to us again.' "
Even if Martin delays his timetable, as some expect, he may have so inflamed the debate that it would be hard to tamp it down now that the 2008 presidential campaign has kicked into high gear. Several Democratic candidates have spoken out against the plan.