The FCC's new "decency" chief

Kevin Martin has close ties to the Bush White House, and an agenda to the right of Michael Powell's when it comes to "crude" programming.

By Eric Boehlert
March 17, 2005 1:09AM (UTC)
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It won't get Beltway tongues wagging like the announcement earlier today that president Bush was supporting the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to run the World Bank, but the news this afternoon that Kevin Martin has been tapped to become the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commissioner is creating lots of chatter. Once a subdued regulatory outpost of interest only to broadcasters, lobbyists and telecom attorneys, the FCC in recent years has grabbed the media spotlight by wrestling with hot-button issues such as media consolidation and indecency over the airwaves. Martin, an FCC commissioner since 2001, succeeds Michael Powell, the son of Gen. Colin Powell, who served as FCC chairman for the last four years. Because Martin already sits on the FCC commission, he does not need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Not that there would be much doubt. As evidenced by his promotion, Martin, just 38, has shown himself to be a savvy player on the Washington, D.C. stage -- or more specifically, backstage. Martin enjoys close personal and professional ties to the White House. He served as deputy general counsel on Bush's 2000 campaign, while his wife, Catherine, is a special assistant to the president on economic policy, and previously worked as an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. FCC watchers have noted how, by subtly withholding support, Martin at times made life difficult for Powell, his fellow Republican at the FCC. For instance, although Martin voted with Powell in 2003 to allow for further media consolidation, Martin rarely tried to lead on the issue or publicly rally support for the measure. So when Congress and the courts moved in to help block part of the deregulation package, it was Powell left with the stain on his resume.

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As for the issue of indecency, which popped to the forefront following Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance, Martin has been to the right of Powell. Although the FCC ended up fining CBS' parent Viacom $550,000 for airing the fleeting moment, Martin wanted to go further and have the commission investigate the entire gyrating halftime program, which he felt was too crude. Additionally, last month while speaking at a telecommunications summit, Martin embraced the notion that cable television and satellite radio, which will soon play home to Howard Stern, should be policed the same way over-the-air radio and television broadcasts are.

"It is, sadly, a victory for the forces of so-called 'decency,'" says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which has battled the FCC over policy in recent years. Religious and conservative groups campaigned for the elevation of Mr. Martin. They have succeeded in establishing a new 'litmus' test for the FCC chair --someone who will be at the forefront of monitoring programming.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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