Kevin Martin Appointed FCC Chairman, Ken Ferree Named to Leading Post at Corporation for Public Broadcasting

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President Bush named conservative commissioner Kevin Martin to head the Federal Communications Commission. Separately, Ken Ferree was named as Chief Operating Officer for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We speak with Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. [includes rush transcript]

Yesterday, President Bush announced the appointment of Kevin Martin to head the Federal Communications Commission. He will replace Michael Powell as the chairman of the organization.

Powell is leaving after seven and a half years on the commission including four years as chairman. Kevin Martin was appointed to the FCC in 2001. Martin is considered an advocate of reducing government’s regulation of telecommunication companies and increasing the monitoring and enforcement of so-called indecent content on the airwaves. He pleased Christian conservative groups when he dissented from an FCC decision not to fine the NBC television network for singer Bono’s use of an expletive during the 2003 Golden Globe Award ceremony. He has also been in favor of stiffer penalties against media companies that broadcast indecent material.

These organizations–like the Family Research Council–have been advocating for the appointment of Martin to replace Powell. Pat Trueman of the Family Research Council has said of Martin “He is someone who understands what indecency is doing to the culture. And he’s certainly someone who we’d be happy to see as a chairman.” Kevin Martin also has close ties to the White House. Previous to his FCC job, he served on the Bush-Cheney transition team and was general council for Bush’s 2000 Presidential campaign. His wife, Cathie Martin is a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney–and works in the White House as a special assistant to the President for economic policy.

Separately, Ken Ferree was named as Chief Operating Officer for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB develops programming for National Public Radio, Public Radio International and PBS. Ferree was appointed to the FCC by Michael Powell in 2001 and has led the FCC’s media bureau for the past four years.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about these developments, we’re joined by Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, joining us in Washington D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeff.

JEFF CHESTER: Thanks. And it was the President of C.P.B. who appointed Mr. Ferree chief operating officer, not President Bush — just a correction. It’s not a presidential appointment, but indeed it does indicate the tight control that the Republicans have over the F.C.C. and also over the principal funding agency for public broadcasting.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we talk about Ken Ferree, let’s talk about the significance of the appointment of Kevin Martin, as the F.C.C. chair.

JEFF CHESTER: Well, of course, it made a lot of sense to appoint Mr. Martin, because he’s already there. He doesn’t have to go through a confirmation session at the Senate, and hence they’ve avoided what could have been a testy battle, particularly from the media reform community. Kevin Martin’s going to give us more or less more of the same that we’ve seen under Chairman Powell. He will support broadly more media consolidation, more media mergers, less ability for individuals and independents, I think, to speak out broadly over broadcasting, cable, satellite, and even online; but one of most disturbing aspects of Mr. Martin’s elevation to chair, in my opinion, is the kind of stealth campaign that you’ve just described. Some of the country’s leading conservative and right-wing religious groups have been lobbying the White House and the Congress to have Mr. Martin appointed. These groups wanted what I call 'a new litmus test,' not for Supreme Court but for the F.C.C. chair. Someone who will be censor-in-chief, a decency czar. Mr. Martin has really been the leader at the F.C.C., along with the Democratic commissioner Michael Copps, in pushing the F.C.C. to be more vigilant over so-called indecent content. So I think Martin is going to unleash a kind of moralist agenda. Certainly, these groups, like the Parents’ Television Council and other religious and conservative groups expect a payback. Mr. Martin has been repeatedly talked about his unhappiness with television content, not just broadcasting but also cable and satellite; and I fear that this is going to have a further chilling effect. And in addition, finally, there is clearly some kind of plan that the Bush White House has related to this issue of so-called indecency because it plays well with their base. So, today, it’s words they don’t like and sexual innuendo that they find distasteful; but I’m concerned about where this will all lead.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Jeff, but on that point, isn’t it true that some of these very groups, like the Family Research Council and Parents Television Council were instrumental in joining with more progressive and radical groups in the media reform movement to stop the F.C.C.'s media concentration regulations a couple of years ago, and to some extent, that there is enormous resonance throughout the country among parents everywhere about the increasing violence and increasing sex on television, so that, to a certain extent, they're tapping into a sentiment that is pretty widespread?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, look, let me answer both those questions. I think the so-called role that the conservatives played in protesting the 2003 media ownership rules, something that Mr. Martin backed — he was one of the three critical votes that approved the most massive consolidation proposals in federal history — you know, those groups are concerned about big media getting bigger. But, for the most part, they do not support the kind of rules we need to really have a diverse and competitive media system. I think you will find those groups more or less bought off by Mr. Martin’s running after the various networks and channels as he attacks what he considers inappropriate content.

Sure, parents and others across the country are alarmed and disturbed by what Mr. Martin, I think, accurately describes in many ways a coarsening of the culture; but the real approach, in my opinion, is not to say you can’t say this, and you can’t say that, or you can’t show, you know, two gay moms on a PBS cartoon. The real answer, something that Mr. Martin and those religious groups, I think, will not embrace, is to open up the monopoly cable and broadcast and satellite system so there can be much more choice. I think the answer to the problem about indecent content is to provide people with more choices, higher quality instead of just having programming hand-picked by Rupert Murdock and Viacom.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Ken Ferree, chosen by the, as you said, the President of the Public Broadcasting, the right-hand man, the chief advisor to Michael Powell, to be the chief operating officer of C.P.B. What is the significance of that?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, there has been a takeover by conservatives of the principle funding agency for Public Television and Public Radio. That’s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. There are very arch-conservatives dominating the board and C.P.B. The Corporation of Public Broadcasting has now elevated someone, Mr. Ferree, who has good relations with key Republicans and conservatives. Mr. Ferree is a disaster. I mean, if the conservatives — and they do — The conservatives, I think, want to destroy public broadcasting from within, and they couldn’t have picked a better person than Mr. Ferree to help undermine it. Like his former boss, Mr. Powell, Mr. Ferree alienated practically everyone from left to right, including very powerful forces in the writing — in the television writing community. Mr. Ferree was so sure that you could further deregulate the media that he dismissed all the criticism. So Mr. Ferree is now in a very powerful position within public broadcasting. Other conservatives have been brought onboard; and you’re really seeing a kind of stranglehold, a tightening, I think, of what PBS, in particular, public television, feels it can do, and it’s very alarming.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeff, I’d like to get back to the F.C.C. for a second. Now, clearly, the choice of Martin is an important one and is a signal where the Bush administration is planning to go with the F.C.C., but he — but the President still has to name another commissioner, doesn’t he, to — that would have to go through Senate confirmation and, given the fact that this is a very small body of only five members, every commissioner counts. Any ideas what — who the potential candidates are for that remaining vacancy on the commission?

JEFF CHESTER: Yeah. I think it’s widely acknowledged that there are two people, Republicans, about to go on the F.C.C., and it’s also possible that Democratic Commissioner Copps, whose term expires in June, will be reappointed. Let me say that Mr. Martin is different than Chairman Powell. You know, Powell, like his former aide, Ferree, you know, was adamant in his own sense of what he believed in was the truth. Kevin Martin is willing to sit down with you and have a discussion. He probably won’t agree with you, but at least he will meet with you, and he will do so in a very affable fashion. He has in the past also voted from his own perspective and differed with Republicans and Chairman Powell. So it’s possible that if we put a lot of pressure on the F.C.C. and a lot of pressure on relatively spineless Democrats in Congress, we might be able to see some kind of give and take at the F.C.C. Two new relatively conservative Republicans will be nominated by the President; one of them is an aide to Senator Stevens. And this concern over indecency is not just because of Mr. Martin becoming chair, and not just because the President and the Republican leadership in the House have taken on this indecency issue. The new, most powerful senator presiding over communications, Senator Stevens, has also embarked in his own kind of decency crusade. Even suggesting we could begin regulating cable and satellite television and radio services such as a show like yours, in part. So, we’re going to see a firmly conservative and pro-consolidation majority at the F.C.C. very soon.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. You have a 'Digital Destiny' campaign. What is it?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, the country is likely to be dominated by these big conglomerates. I mean, it’s not just broadcasting, but it’s cable and satellite and also the internet. There are two critical Supreme Court cases at the end of this month, March 29, that in part will help determine whether or not we will see freedom survive on the internet and the broadband world. So — but there is an opportunity with all these changes, Amy, with the fact that cable is upgrading in many, many cities to provide internet. The telephone companies are coming in to provide more television and internet and we have broadband and we have new wireless networks backed by such good groups as the Free Press, that there’s an opportunity now at the local level and national level to set a — a set of expectations to begin trying to counter-program the American media system. So let’s seize our digital destiny by articulating what we believe in and creating the content, creating the strategies to get us what we want. The government is not going to deliver to us in the short term what we want. There has to be a lot of action both in terms of local policies, but frankly also local activism. I think we can make a difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Jeff Chester, as you look at the future of public broadcasting, where it’s going, who makes it up, both at the level of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and at the F.C.C.

JEFF CHESTER: Look, I think for public broadcasting, sadly (and this is part of Digital Destiny) — we have a chance now with expanded cable, expanded satellite, phone company entry and broadband internet. Yes, not everyone has it, but it’s out there. We have an opportunity now to recreate public service media in the 21st century. Sadly, I do not think we can rely on public broadcasting to be the bulwark for public interest programming. You know, it’s being attacked by the conservatives and, frankly, they’re caving in. We can try to save them. It’s something worth doing. But if we work together, you know, programs like yours can be at the core of a new and reinvigorated public service media system, and I think that’s worth fighting for, both at the F.C.C. and Congress and in communities across the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jeff, in terms of that, the move toward digital broadcasting and the increasing bandwidth that television stations, including public television stations, will have, any opportunity for greater diversity within public broadcasting as a result of that changeover?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, what it’s going to take is a lot of pressure at the local level in every community in the United States where there is a PBS station. Those PBS stations, either now or fairly soon, will be sending out four additional channels. So —- and local cable companies, which provide the majority of Americans with access to television have agreed -—

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, we have 15 seconds.

JEFF CHESTER: Yes, there’s an opportunity to make public television better but people have to be yelling and screaming at their local station managers and people like Pat Mitchell and the public broadcasting lobbying group.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you for being with us. Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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