Oct 1 2006

Shredding Bad News at the FCC

Studies with 'wrong' results were disappeared

The Federal Communications Commission has suppressed reports documenting the negative impact of media consolidation, even as the FCC trumpeted reports that reflect favorably on Commission members’ deregulation campaign.

The scandal emerged on September 12, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) produced a leaked copy of a 2004 FCC report as she questioned current FCC chair Kevin Martin during his re-nomination hearings. The report showed that locally owned television stations provide more local news than those with non-local owners. (FAIR helped call attention to this report in a September 15 Action Alert.)

Three years ago, then-FCC chair Michael Powell launched proceedings on the effects of local ownership on television news as part of his drive to further deregulate media and allow for even greater consolidation. But the report commissioned under Powell turned out to undermine his argument that consolidation has no ill effects on local news, and, according to former FCC lawyer Adam Candeub, senior managers ordered “every last piece” of the study destroyed (AP, 9/14/06).

According to the report, locally owned stations actually deliver nearly six more minutes of total news and almost five-and-a-half more minutes of local news in a 30-minute newscast than stations with non-local owners. This adds up to 33 more hours of local news a year–a remarkable figure, and a damning one for big media’s allies in the FCC, who are required to protect the public interest and to promote localism.

As the Prometheus Radio Project noted (9/15/06):

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell…made many high-sounding pronouncements about the need for media policy to be rooted in empirical evidence. Powell also attempted to separate out the issue of media consolidation from localism, claiming that most of the millions of comments to the Commission stemmed from a concern about local content, not a concern about concentration of ownership into fewer hands.

Powell, however, denied any knowledge of the report or responsibility for its suppression (AP, 9/15/06). Martin, who succeeded Powell in 2005, told Boxer he hadn’t been aware of the report either. He has promised to keep “an open mind” on media consolidation as the FCC embarks once again on a review of its media ownership rules (Daily Variety, 9/13/06). The FCC has since posted the full report on its website.

On September 18, Boxer released a second suppressed report. This 2003 study found that after the 1996 Telecommunications Act loosened ownership rules, the number of radio station owners had fallen 35 percent, even as the number of commercial stations had increased by nearly 6 percent (AP, 9/18/06).

And there may be still more suppressed studies. Communications Daily (9/20/06) reported that Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation made a Freedom of Information Act request on August 10 for a radio study on localism and media ownership–similar to the television report uncovered by Boxer–that was solicited but never published.

While these reports seem to have been disappeared, the FCC has enthusiastically publicized reports it commissioned that supported its deregulation agenda–suggesting that the agency was cherry-picking publication of its publicly funded studies. In 2002, the FCC released 12 studies that suggested that media consolidation did not in fact hurt diversity or localism (L.A. Times, 10/2/02). The next year Powell’s FCC voted to loosen media ownership rules, a decision overturned in 2004 by an appeals court.

Boxer called on the FCC’s inspector general to conduct a formal, independent investigation into the situation. She wrote a letter to the FCC asking that the agency “examine whether it was then or is now the practice of the FCC to suppress facts that are contrary to a desired outcome.”

Martin wrote in a response to Boxer (AP, 9/19/06), “I want to assure you that I too am concerned about what happened to these two draft reports.” Martin ordered the inspector general to conduct an investigation–a step that FAIR’s Action Alert had urged–and promised to “cooperate fully” with the inquiry.

The FCC’s elimination of reports that contradicted its official line received remarkably little news coverage outside of trade publications. (AP and the L.A. Times were the major exceptions.) When contacted by FAIR, Washington Post media reporter Frank Ahrens replied that he had called Ken Ferree, head of the FCC’s Media Bureau at the time, who said that he didn’t recall the reports in question but would have squelched them if he had known about them because they were no longer what the FCC was working on. “To me, that sounds more like management then document destruction,” Ahrens wrote. “It doesn’t sound nefarious to me.” Ahrens suggested that other reporters may also have been told by their FCC sources that this was a non-story.