The FCC has now announced the schedule for the first of six public hearings on media ownership to take place outside of Washington DC. According to the official announcement, the FCC will hold two separate hearings in the Los Angeles area next Tuesday, October 3. One at USC from 1:30- 4:30 p.m. and the other at El Segundo High School in El Segundo from 6:30-10:30 p.m.
Of possible interest is the fact that the Mayor of El Segundo, Kelly McDowell, is the brother of Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. As Commissioner McDowell remarked at his confirmation hearing last spring:
> “My oldest brother, Kelly McDowell, is the mayor of El Segundo, California. And if you’ve ever flown
> into Los Angeles Airport, you’ve flown into my brother’s town.“
It certainly makes sense for McDowell to want to have a hearing in his brother’s home town, and for Martin to acquiesce. For one thing, it will certainly raise the visibility of the hearing for El Segundo residents and local press. It makes getting a community location and local coordination easier. Heck, if my brother were mayor somewhere, I’d want to have a hearing in his town. And, as Robert McDowell observed, it’s close to the airport. Given that the Commissioners will be on red-eye flights going home, that has to be convenient.
On the other hand, it raises obvious concerns about giving pro-consolidation folks a ”home court“ advantage. As Mayor, Kelly McDowell is uniquely positioned to encourage witnesses who will support the current FCC’s policy of relaxing ownership rules while subtly discouraging attendance by folks who might challenge accepted FCC positions.
This puts the pressure on Martin to ensure not merely impartiality, but the appearance of impartiality. After the recent reports that — prior to Martin becoming chair — the FCC suppresed studies demonstrating the negative impacts of media consolidation, public trust for the FCC as an institution interested in an impartial investigation and analysis of the facts is at an all-time low.
Martin has already taken a good first step in neutralizing any accusation of bias. The FCC will have a hearing at the USC in Los Angeles before going out to El Segundo. This same location recently hosted a media ownership event sponsored by media activists and attended by FCC Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, neutralizing any ”home court advantage“ for indusry on at least the first hearing.
But the FCC has yet to announce how it will assign seats or provide ”open microphone“ opportunities at either hearing. Nor has the FCC yet announced its witness lists. A highly suspicious audience will look carefully to see if the ”local leader“ pool is stacked with pro-consolidation witnesses, while local leaders, local business folks and residents opposed to consolidation don’t make the list. It is essential to any appearance of fairness that the FCC announce procedures for getting seats and signing up for speaking opportunities well in advance, and adopt procedures that give as many people as possible a chance to speak.
Martin has repeatedly proven himself a man who plays hardball, but an honest game of hardball. He has demonstrated sophisticated political skills while navigating highly controversial issues. Unlike his predecessor Michael Powell, Kevin Martin has proven time and again that he recognizes the value of meeting with people with whom he disagrees, and actually listening to what they have to say.
But real public hearings that foster genuine public input provide challenges for even the most skilled. That’s why Republicans in this administration have assidulously avoided them, preferring ”town meetings“ filled with supporters and lackeys. The media ownership hearings provide an opportunity for Kevin Martin to show his commitment to real openness — if he can resist the urge to use a ”home court” advanatge.
Stay tuned . . . .