FCC told to focus on public interest

COX NEWS SERVICE

Senate Democrats served notice to members of the Federal Communications Commission yesterday that their top priority is protecting the public interest, not boosting corporate profits.

Under Republican leadership, the FCC has “abandoned its core responsibility” to act in the public interest, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said at a packed hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. As a result, he said, broadcasters put on news programs that are filled with “junk, sex, scandals” and other content that fails to inform the public about important issues.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, said the agency’s review of media-ownership rules was a “spectacular failure” that didn’t do enough to protect the public.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, criticized FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin for what she called his agency’s “culture of secrecy.”

Mr. Martin, who was appointed by President Bush, defended the agency’s performance.

He noted that more Americans are getting high-speed Internet access at lower costs and that “the communications industry is strong,” especially compared with the late years of the Clinton administration.

“In the year 2000, the communications industry began a precipitous and far-reaching decline,” he said. “What a difference six years make.”

But Mr. Martin’s optimistic assessment was undercut by the commission’s two Democrats.

Commissioner Michael J. Copps said that while profits may be good for many in the communications industry, the public interest is not being well served. For example, broadcasters are presenting far too much “gratuitously violent programming,” he said.

In addition, telecommunications companies are not doing enough to provide high-speed Internet connections for Americans living in rural areas and inner cities, he said.

Committee members also pressed Mr. Martin and fellow Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate on their willingness to vigorously enforce the conditions that allowed AT&T; complete its takeover of BellSouth.

After lengthy negotiations with the commission’s two Democrats, AT&T; agreed in late December to a set of conditions that cleared the way for a unanimous approval of the merger on Dec. 29.

But afterward, Mr. Martin and Mrs. Tate issued a joint statement saying some of the conditions were “discriminatory and run contrary to commission policy and precedent.”

Commerce committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, asked if that statement means “you won’t stand by the deal that was reached.”

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