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FCC Travels on Industry's Dime | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

FCC Travels on Industry's Dime

With the June 2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission on a series of rule changes that would dramatically reshape the nation's media landscape rapidly approaching, it is abundantly clear that honest players in the debate have determined that making the changes would spell disaster for democratic discourse, cultural diversity and the public interest that the FCC is supposed to defend.

More than 100 members of Congress – ranging from Congressional Progressive Caucus stalwarts such as Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Ohio's Sherrod Brown to Congressional Black Caucus veterans such as Michigan's John Conyers and New York's Charles Rangel to Republican moderates such as Maine U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as diehard conservatives such as U.S. Senators Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and Wayne Allard, R-Colorado –have objected to the FCC's rush to eliminate rules that protect against media monopoly and corporate consolidation. Leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the National Council of La Raza, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and dozens of other public interest groups have signed letters demanding that the FCC seek more public comment before making decisions that they argue "could have a sweeping impact on what news and information Americans see and hear in the future." The Newspaper Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcasting Employees and Technicians, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, the American Federation of Musicians and the Future of Music Coalition have all warned that making the changes could undermine American journalism and culture. Close to 300 leading academics have come forward to say that the FCC is moving too quickly and without legitimate scholarship on these crucial rulemaking decisions. Rockers Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and Patti Smith have joined the chorus of concern, along with conservative columnist William Safire and the National Rifle Association, and the city councils of Chicago and Seattle, the Vermont House of Representatives. And public comments to the FCC have been running 20-1 against making changes that would allow the nation's largest media companies to control virtually all television, radio and newspaper communications in American communities.

Against such overwhelming opposition, what could it be that is driving the FCC to press forward with the June 2 vote? The answer may be found in a blockbuster report just released by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, which details how industry groups the FCC is supposed to be regulating have over the past eight years paid for more than 2,500 junkets taken by key FCC officials.

The examination of FCC travel records by analysts with the Center for Public Integrity reveals that FCC commissioners and top staffers have been flown to hundreds of conferences, conventions and broadcast-industry events in Las Vegas (330 trips), New Orleans (173 trips), New York (102 trips), London (98 trips), as well as San Francisco, Miami, Anchorage, Palm Springs, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Beijing and Paris. Often, according to the study, the FCC aides merely attend events as observers – but they do so in style, spending the night in elite accommodations such as the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and at the resorts of Amelia Island, Florida, and Hilton Head, South Carolina.

This sort of high-flying junketeering costs a lot of money. But money, it seems, is no object when media conglomerates and their lobbying arms are wining and dining the people who regulate the scope – and potential profitability –- of their empires.

Over the past eight years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, FCC commissioners and staffers have taken almost $2.8 million in trips that were paid for by the interests they are supposed to police. Companies with big business before the FCC this spring, such as Viacom and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., have paid for trips. So too have lobbying groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters ($191,472 for junkets by 206 FCC officials) and the The National Cable and Telecommunications Association ($172,635 for junkets by 125 FCC officials). While some of these groups and companies may disagree on particular points, the bottom line, Media Access Project president Andy Schwartzman told the Center for Public Integrity researchers, is that the firms and interest groups that pay for this travel can all buy "access" and "personal face time" with the men and women who set the rules that media concerns must live by. In contrast, explained Schwartzman, "It's impossible for the public to get the same kind of access with those officials."

So who do media concerns buy access to when they pay for trips? FCC chairman Michael Powell, the most aggressive proponent of the media ownership rule changes that will be considered June 2, had 44 junkets, costing almost $85,000, paid for by interests he is supposed to regulate. No other commissioner ran up travel bills in excess of $20,000, but several of Powell's chief aides did. Running up travel expenses in excess of those of any commissioner other than Powell were the chairman's legal advisor, Susan Eid (15 trips at a cost of $17,368.95) and FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree (19 trips at a cost of $23,503.60).

While FCC officials defend the junkets, offering arguments like that of Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who issued a statement saying that accepting the expense-paid travel opportunities "serves a crucial information-gathering purpose that is necessary to effective decisionmaking."

But Consumer Federation of America research director Marc Cooper, one of the savviest observers of media policy making in the U.S., argues that, "It is silly to say they [FCC officials] don't lose some of their objectivity when they are being wined and dined like they are at these industry events."

Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis is blunter. Assessing the study's findings, he said, "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."

How cozy a relationship can all-expense-paid junkets to international hotspots buy?

One indicator may be found in a study by the Center for Public Integrity's data gathering initiative, that details how the FCC – which receives millions of dollars in federal funding to conduct authoritative research that supposedly allows it to serve the public interest – frequently relies on information from the private sector.

This study, according to the Center's researchers, revealed that:

 "(The) FCC's reliance on non-government private data is so ingrained that when public interest groups asked for access to data underlying a series of media ownership reports last fall, the FCC relented only after issuing a quasi-judicial 'protective order' meant to keep the information secret."

 "When the Center was constructing its database of media companies, researchers and reporters were repeatedly referred by FCC staff to private companies for basic information on ownership, audience reach and cable subscribers. Getting market share information, which is key when reviewing whether broadcasters are within existing FCC limits, was all but impossible without going outside the agency."

In other words, FCC officials who let the industries they regulate pay for their junkets are also willing to let the private-sector provide the make-or-break "research" on which the commision will decide what is in the public interest.

"The report is astonishing," says Lewis, "because it reveals more than ever before just how incestuous the relationship is between the Federal Communications Commission and the broadcasting and cable industries it is supposed to regulate."

(The Center for Public Integrity's studies are available on the web at www.openairwaves.org. In addition, the Center has developed several searchable databases designed to allow Americans to learn more about media consolidation in their hometowns. These databases can be accessed at: www.openairwaves.org/telecom/analysis/default.aspx.)

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