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The Other Side of the McCain Lobbyist Scandal | The Nation

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The Other Side of the McCain Lobbyist Scandal

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I don't know whether Senator John McCain had sex with lobbyist Vickie Iseman, but I do know, first hand, that he broke the rules while doing the bidding of media mogul Lowell "Bud" Paxson, a major contributor to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. McCain's staff lied it about it then and they are inventing new lies even now.

About the Author

Jerold M. Starr
Jerold M. Starr is director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and visiting professor of communication at...

I was the leader of the campaign opposing the transfer of Pittsburgh's second public television station (Channel 16), along with $17.5 million, to a conservative televangelist ministry so that Paxson could expand his network into the Pittsburgh market. In fact, I wrote a well-reviewed book in 2000 about the entire case, Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting.

Since this man could well be the next President of the United States, his character should be of concern to all people of this country.

In 1994, local media revealed that Pittsburgh's public station WQED had piled up millions of dollars of debt due to obvious malfeasance and, according to our informants, possible embezzlement. By 1996, new CEO George Miles's solution to this problem was to commercialize and sell off Channel 16. Along with activist Linda Wambaugh, I organized the Save Pittsburgh Public Television campaign to advocate a solution that would have both addressed the debt and saved the station.

In July 1996, the FCC denied WQED's petition on the grounds that a noncommercial license had never been removed from a community without being replaced by another. Around April 1997, WQED proposed "Plan B"--a swap with Cornerstone Broadcasting, bankrolled by Paxson Communications, with Cornerstone taking over our public station and Paxson taking over Cornerstone's commercial frequency.

As reported originally in the New York Times, McCain wrote two letters late in 1999 to each of the five FCC commissioners demanding that they advise him by December 15 whether they had voted for or against Paxson's petition. McCain continues to insist that his letter's disclaimer that he was not calling for a particular outcome exonerates him of charges of interference. However, Steve Labaton of the New York Times plowed through 2,000 pages of McCain office correspondence and found that almost all of his letters included this "boilerplate" disclaimer. Moreover, in "the vast majority of these regulatory cases where McCain himself sent the letter, the interested parties had contributed to his presidential campaigns."

As our attorney, Georgetown's Angela Campbell, advised ABC News: "The timing of the letters was clearly in Paxson's interest." Paxson's contract with all parties was due to expire December 31 and there were clear indications that Cornerstone would withdraw from the deal. The Commission still was undecided and had the option to refer the case for public hearing so that community sentiment could be measured. Short of outright denial, this was our wish. Miles acknowledged to the press at the time that had this happened, the deal would have been "dead in the water."

Back then, after extensive interviews with DC lobbyists and FCC staff, the Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post and others concluded that McCain's letters were "highly unusual," "crossed a line" and "were widely interpreted to favor the complicated transfers."

At the time, McCain's staff said to the press that his intervention was appropriate because "there was no formal opposition." Our opposition had been formal for years. Our board of directors included such community leaders as the president of the Pittsburgh City Council, a monsignor in the Pittsburgh Catholic Archdiocese and a state legislator (who sat on WQED's board but could not abide the sellout). Our supporters included scores of unions with up to 150,000 members, more than forty public interest groups, hundreds of educators, clergy and other professionals and, thanks to Working Assets, up to 40,000 letters urging the FCC to deny the transfer of Pittsburgh's public station to Cornerstone.

The major reason the case took so long is the well-documented presentation by our campaign that Cornerstone was not qualified to run our educational broadcasting station. In a highly unusual move in March 1998, Barbara Kreisman, a high-ranking FCC official, wrote to Cornerstone to advise that it amend their application to demonstrate eligibility. Kreisman called Cornerstone's five-member board "self perpetuating" and "not...broadly representative of the Pittsburgh community."

Kreisman noted further that Cornerstone's "goal still appears to be primarily religious" and "it's not clear to what extent" Cornerstone would pursue its claimed educational purposes. Still another problem was that, given all the commercials on Cornerstone (some programs being little more than infomercials), the FCC needed to know what steps the station "will take to comply with the Commission's rules regarding advertising and fund-raising on noncommercial educational stations."

(One show peddled screensavers with messages such as "Somewhere a homo teacher is molesting a child." Since Cornerstone leaders were active followers of Pat Robertson, gays were not the only groups who got hammered on the air. So did the United Nations, teachers unions, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Buddhists and Unitarians, among others.)

Cornerstone's response to the FCC's concerns was to add two associates to their five-member board and to submit a reformatted schedule with the same programs, even those in which commercials were integral to their content. Cornerstone then accused the FCC of religious bias and refused to make any more changes.

In January 1999, the FCC invited all attorneys to a meeting. When our attorney asked the FCC's Joyce Bernstein whether the meeting was for "negotiation," Bernstein replied, "No, there is a standard for reserved licenses." The FCC then called to advise that Cornerstone refused to attend and the meeting canceled.

Now McCain's camp has issued a 1,500-page document of "facts" the recent New York Times exposé did not include, such as that "No representative of Paxson or Alcade and Fay asked McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding." However, within days, Paxson himself advised the Washington Post that both Iseman and he had met with McCain about the matter.

At the time, according to well-documented reports, Paxson's family, company and law firm were contributing tens of thousands of dollars to McCain's campaign while McCain flew around on Paxson's private jet to rallies and to fundraisers on Paxson's yacht.

Eight months later, the FCC did, indeed, determine that McCain had broken the rules. First, the comment period was over so the case was bound by ex parte rules--no outside attempts to influence the commissioners. Commissioner Tristani recently explained, "It's like going to a court and saying, 'Tell us before it is final how you voted.'" At the time, Chair Kennard wrote to McCain that such inquiries could have "substantive impacts on the Commission's deliberation" and "the due process rights of the parties."

As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain had control of the FCC's budget. To a colleague of mine at a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, Paxson boasted he had the commission "in his pocket." One commissioner, Democrat Susan Ness, had her application for another term at the FCC on McCain's desk. Ness broke ranks with her Democratic colleagues to approve the transfer, and then switched back to warn Cornerstone the FCC would be watching to see that they conformed to the rules governing non-commercial educational stations.

Apparently, wishing to recast McCain as peacemaker rather than influence peddler, his campaign has resorted to more lies, claiming his staff "met with public broadcasting activists from the Pittsburgh area about the transfer" and we "expressed frustration that the proceeding had been before the FCC for over two years." Allegedly, we asked McCain's staff "to contact the FCC regarding this proceeding." We had no idea of McCain's sudden and urgent interest in our local matter until the FCC advised that the commissioners already had voted 3-2 to approve the transfer, at which time McCain's letters were dropped on us.

In the end, Cornerstone miraculously withdrew, stating it could not risk compromising its religious ministry. Subsequently, Republicans in Congress moved a bill stripping educational programming as a requirement for holding an educational license. It actually passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.

As I said, McCain's private life is not my concern. But I care deeply, as a veteran of Pittsburgh's struggle to save public television, that he sought to dictate the solution to our community dispute on behalf of some Florida-based media mogul.

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