Like the man who appointed him to the position, today marks FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s last day on the job. That both he and President Bush are leaving office to the relief of most, and the glee of many, is partly explained by a trait they share: Both have an unfortunate capacity to project their personal views ahead, and at the expense, of sound public policy.
In Bush’s case the most obvious example is the Iraqi adventure; in Martin’s it has been his pursuit of content controls on TV programming. This is not to say there weren’t other things on their agenda—some of which even went right—just that it is these issues for which they will be remembered most critically.
Looking back on it, two events bookend The Media Institute’s relationship with Kevin Martin. The first was a speech he gave at our annual awards banquet in October of 2003, at a time when he was but a Commissioner at the FCC; the second was a private meeting I had with him in May of 2005, not long after he became Chairman.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can see in Martin’s banquet speech an outline of where his personal views might later take him. Indeed, I knew even before the speech that he had a strong aversion to indecent programming. But even so I assumed that his clear understanding of the benefits of free speech (much of which he attested to in his remarks), and his knowledge of the constitutional limitations, would overcome his personal views.
To be fair, Martin would deny, and indeed has denied, that his pursuit of indecent TV programming was anything more than an obligation on his part; that Congress has passed laws and he was simply enforcing them.
That argument, though, puts me in mind of a tale concerning the former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Seems that, so the story goes, Wilson went round to Buckingham Palace following his Labour Party’s defeat in 1970, there to tender his resignation to the Queen, only to find that she had gone for the day to the races at Ascot. This was said by many to be very odd because the Queen was known to be a lady who always put duty before pleasure. Perhaps though, said one, the Queen saw Ascot as her duty and Wilson’s resignation as her pleasure.
However he saw his duties, Kevin Martin’s crackdown on TV content was definitely his pleasure.
In November of 2004, The Media Institute published an essay written by Arizona State University professor Laurence Winer. Titled “Soul of the Censor: The FCC Attacks Television Violence,” the essay was a brilliant, if provocative, explication of the constitutional infirmities, and other problems, with the FCC’s crackdown on violent and indecent TV programming.
Six months later, and with growing concern about the direction in which he seemed headed, I wandered over to the FCC for a meeting with Martin, who just two months earlier had been named Chairman. My hope for the meeting was that I might be able to persuade him to make a course correction re “fleeting expletives,” and all the rest of it, on the argument that the Commission was putting the cart before the horse; that, as Professor Winer had observed, not only was there no evidence in the record of harm from exposure to indecent TV, the nature of the alleged harm itself wasn’t even explained.
Martin was having none of it, though, and showed a particular displeasure with Winer’s essay. And so, though I didn’t realize it at the time, what had been a collegial relationship with him, and with Michael Powell before him, turned adversarial. Thereafter, he rarely attended Media Institute functions, and largely stopped communicating with us.
But he didn’t stop, or even slow down, his campaign to “clean up” the airwaves. Instead, he turned his attention to cable TV, and to his “a la carte” proposal for cable pricing, a mission that, given its length and depth, took on almost comical proportions, with some observers likening it to Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick.
Martin argued that the motive behind his a la carte advocacy was to give consumers a break in the rising cost of cable TV service, but virtually nobody was buying it. Instead, it looked to most people as just another attempt to supplant ‘indecent” with “family friendly” programming. As Fortune’s Mark Gunther put it, “So what’s going on here? Politics, as usual.”
In the end, the great irony in Martin’s a la carte campaign–and indeed in all of his efforts to combat what he deems offensive or harmful TV programming–is that owing to the Internet and its effects, the marketplace by itself is moving toward program disaggregation and greater consumer choice, a development one might think a Republican appointee would have expected and preferred to government controls.