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Only hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a cheering US Congress that history would forgive the United States and Great Britain for using dubious data to make the case for a preemptive war with Iraq, history was catching up with Blair. And it did not look as if forgiveness was in the offering.
As the man British newspapers describe as George W. Bush's "poodle" was flying from his cheerleader-in-chief appearance before Congress to a meeting in Tokyo, Blair learned of the suspicious death of a British expert on weapons of mass destruction. The dead scientist had been hounded by the prime minister's aides and allies for apparently assisting a BBC investigation into manipulation of intelligence data by the Blair team.
The news of the death, an apparent suicide, has created a crisis for Blair, and perhaps for his partners in Washington. Within minutes after the body was discovered, Washington observers were referring to Dr. David Kelly, the dead scientist, as "the British Vince Foster." That reference to the mysterious death of Clinton White House lawyer Vince Foster, which launched a thousand conspiracy theories that remain fodder for right-wing talk radio hosts in the US, was a wide stretch. Foster's death, while certainly as tragic as Kelly's, was never so closely linked to immediate and internationally significant questions as that of a former United Nations weapons inspector who had become one of the British Ministry of Defense's most highly regarded experts on chemical and biological weapons.
Blair knows full well that there is no debating the somber assessment of London's Daily Telegraph newspaper, which declared Saturday that the prime minister has been "plunged into the biggest crisis of his premiership." Already, the prime minister has conceded that that there will have to be a judicial inquiry and other investigations into the death. The leader of Britain's Conservative opposition to Blair's Labour government has suggested that the parliament may have to be called back into session to examine the matter. Amid mounting speculation that some of Blair's closest aides – including Alastair Campbell, the man charged with doctoring the intelligence data – could be forced to resign, London's Guardian newspaper declared: "Tony Blair's government was last night shaken to its foundations by the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly." How shaky are the foundations? Blair has been forced to personally answer questions from reporters about whether he has "blood on (his) hands" and whether he sould resign. Glenda Jackson, a member of Blair's Labour party majority in the Parliament and a former Blair Cabinet minister, called on Saturday for Blair, Campbell and the Minister of State for Defence to step down. Descibing the actions of the Blair government in the weeks before Kelly's death as "an absolutely shameful, shameful episode," Jackson said, "There should be resignations and they should come as quickly as possible."
The shock waves that have caused the foundations of Blair's government to shake are being felt in Washington. Bush Administration aides who had hoped Blair's appearance before Congress would silence at least some of the questioning about the American president's use of dubious British intelligence to make a "case" for war with Iraq, suddenly found themselves lashed to a British leader whose credibility was sinking by the hour.
Because the Bush Administration relied so heavily on dossiers developed by Blair's spin doctors – even after their dubious claims were challenged by American intelligence agencies – Blair's crisis could well become Bush's crisis. After all, Bush's poll numbers have been dropping in recent days as media and Congressional attention has focused on his use of discredited information about Iraq's supposed efforts to obtain uranium in Africa. According to Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, Bush "is being seen for the first time in his presidency as a president under fire." And he is under fire, at least in part, because of his decision to build his case for war with Iraq on British intelligence data that US intelligence agencies had rejected as unsound. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in his State of the Union address.
Blair's trip to Washington was supposed to make Congress more comfortable with Bush's decision to treat claims from the British prime minister's spin doctors more seriously than information from US intelligence agencies. With questions about Blair's credibility growing in Britain, Bush and his aides are going to have a much harder time quelling the controversy in the US.
Things could get even tougher for the Bush camp, as details of the British controversy are revealed. Kelly came into the limelight during an investigation of whether Blair aides had inserted into the introduction of a September, 2002, dossier a questionable claim that the Iraqi military was capable of launching weapons of mass destruction "within 45 minutes."
On September 28, 2002, in a radio address to the American people that President Bush used to make the case for Congressional authorization of the use of force against Iraq, he said, "The danger to our country is grave and it is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given."
Last week, Hans Blix, the former head of United Nations weapons inspections team, said the British government – and, by extension, Bush -- made a "fundamental mistake" when it claimed the Iraqis could deploy weapons of mass destruction so quickly. And, earlier this month, a British parliamentary committee chided Blair aides for giving "undue prominence" to the claim in their dossier on Iraqi threats.
The unraveling of another claim made by Bush in his arguments for war with Iraq points to the challenge the administration faces because of its high level of reliance on Blair's dossiers. As Blair is questioned, questioning of Bush is sure to follow. Indeed, while British papers refer to Blair as Bush's "poodle," it appears that the British prime minister may have been the master when it came to peddling questionable information.
Kelly's death and the controversy that has arisen should serve as a cautionary tale for defenders of the Bush Administration who, in their desperation to protect the president from questioning, have mimicked many of the worst excesses of what now appears to have been an out-of-control Blair team. It is still common for Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators to explode with anger when anyone -- especially a vteran intelligence analyst or diplomat -- expresses concern about whether the administration misled the country regarding threats posed by Iraq. GOP majorities in the House and Senate continue to block a full-scale investigation of the use -- or misuse -- of intelligence data by the Administration. And there are still those who question the patriotism of Americans who seek to get to the bottom of the question of whether American really needed to go to war when it did.
The Blair government's determination to prevent and punish this sort of questioning led it into the current crisis.
In recent weeks, Blair's government has conducted a full-scale witchhunt with the goal of discrediting top journalists – and their sources in the British government – who have produced reports on the manipulation of information regarding the supposed threat posed by Iraq on the eve of the US-led attack on that country. After the BBC's respected defense correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, revealed that the Blair's aides had "sexed up" information from the intelligence community, the Blair team unleashed a fierce assault on the BBC and Gilligan. After Kelly acknowledged he had spoken with Gilligan, the top scientist faced an equally fierce assault from Blair's spin doctors and their minions. Just this week, Kelly was subjected to a public grilling by members of parliament loyal to Blair, in an attempt to get the scientist to cast doubt on the BBC reports for which it now appears he may have been one of several high-ranking sources.
The Blair government's efforts to discredit the BBC, Kelly and any other institution or individual willing to question the prime minister's peddling of dubious data have been broadly referred to in Britain as a vendetta. After Kelly's body was discovered, the Guardian referred to him in a headline as "The Vendetta's Victim."
When it was proposed during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the sole power "to make war" be vested in the Congress, the measure carried overwhelmingly. Only one delegate favored granting the authority to the executive branch, South Carolina's Pierce Butler and his proposal was greeted with horror by his fellow delegates. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said he "never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war." George Mason of Virginia explained that he was against empowering a president to declare war because an individual could "not be trusted with it." Charles Pinckney of South Carolina closed the debate by declaring, "In a democratic republic, it is essential that the decision to go to war be made by the most broadly representative body: the legislative."
Fully conscious of the threat that an executive bent on illegitimate warmaking could pose to the republic, the founders took great care to structure a governing system based on checks and balances. The Congress was charged with the task of declaring wars; the president, as commander-in-chief, was given the power to pursue military action.
Each of those duties came with profound responsibilities. The Congress was required to analyze all the arguments for sending American troops into combat, review the costs and consider the long-term diplomatic, political and moral consequences of so serious a decision. The president's role, as head of the executive branch, was to serve as a guide and a resource -- providing insights on the best approach and assuring that the legislative branch had the information in needed to determine whether war is necessary.
Last fall and winter, as the Bush administration agitated for war with Iraq, the too-powerful leadership of the Congress failed to live up to its most basic responsibility: the checking of a presidential rush to war. Despite demands from millions of citizens, Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate allowed their chambers to serve as little more than rubber stamps for a president who desperately needed to be checked and balanced. And they ultimately pushed through a vague resolution that was presumed to require the White House to work with the United Nations to address questions of whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed a threat to the rest of the world.
Millions of Americans demanded that Congress take seriously its responsibility to balance the executive, and some members of the House and Senate listened. U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, U,S, Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Barbara Lee, D-Cal., and representatives such as Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, and John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, made valiant attempts to get the Congress to do its duty. In particular, Byrd, Kucinich and Conyers continued to challenge the administration. But, while they asked the right questions, they were isolated in a Congress where leaders refused to give official sanction to a necessary dialogue about the Bush administrations arguments and "evidence" for warmaking.
Throughout the months leading up to the start of the war, leaders of the House and Senate accepted the White House line with little or no questioning. They effectively steered the Congress out of commission.
Now, as Americans learn that the White House line was crooked, the question is whether those Congressional leaders will assert the Constitutional authority of their chambers or remain the pawns of the administration. New revelations by security advisors regarding what appears to have been a pattern of deliberate deception by the administration -- right up to and including the insertion into the president's State of the Union address of discredited claims about Iraq seeking to buy uranium in Africa -- have confirmed the concerns of the millions of citizens who said before the war started that George W. Bush had failed to make a credible case for the preemptive invasion of another country.
In the face of these revelations, there can be no doubt regarding the intent of the founders, or their charge to the current Congress. The Congress is required by the Constitution to police the president. The revelations regarding the fabrications, fantasies and falsehoods on which the arguments for war were based must be investigated. The investigations must be immediate, they must be thorough, they must be conducted in the open, they must follow the obvious lines of questioning that have been raised, and they must determine who in the administration was responsible for any and all deceits. And every indication from the founders is that the leaders of the Congress should have no qualms about advancing the investigation as the occupation of Iraq continues. Indeed, as John Marshall explained, "the whole powers of war being, by the Constitution of the United States vested in Congress, the acts of that body alone can be resorted to as our guides."
At the heart of the investigation must be an understanding that the Constitution charges the Congress with no greater duty than that of checking and balancing the executive branch in a time of war. The Congress failed in that duty during much of the past year. Now, it must reassert and redeem itself. It should do so with a consciousness of the warning the primary author of the Constitution itself, James Madison, gave America at its beginning:
"Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
"War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."
The American people have already changed the character of the debate over media consolidation and monopoly. Now, they may well be on the verge of winning a historically unprecedented victory in Congress. Many thought the FCC's 3-2 vote on June 2 permitting media conglomerates to own more TV stations in every market and nationally, as well as permitting the same firm to own multiple TV stations, the daily newspaper, and multiple radio stations in the same community -- the dreaded cross-ownership -- settled the matter.
Now it appears dissenting FCC members Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein hit the nail on the head when they said the June 2 vote was so deeply absurd and corrupt -- it was payback time for the huge media conglomerates that traditionally have their way with regulators -- that it would provoke an onslaught of public outrage that would not recede until the FCC's changes were overturned.
How much public outrage? It is arguable that more Americans want to see Osama bin Laden's bust enshrined on Mount Rushmore than wish to allow fewer and fewer media companies the right to gobble up what remains of our media system.
An absurd statement, you say? Well consider this. When FCC Chairman Michael Powell refused to hold more than one official public hearing on whether to relax media ownership rules this winter and spring, he urged Americans to send him, the other commissioners, and members of Congress their thoughts via post, telephone and email. According to the FCC's Adelstein nearly two million people have done so. And by the FCC's own calculations, over 99.9 percent of these citizens demand that the FCC keep the existing media ownership rules, or tighten them.
Congress got the message that Powell and his fellow Republican pranksters on the FCC somehow missed as they were polishing off their resumes for their post-FCC careers in industry. In three Senate Commerce committee hearings chaired by John McCain (Rep., AZ) since June 2, the FCC has been attacked mercilessly and most of the rules overturned. Now there is legislation in both the Senate and the House to throw out what the FCC hath wrought. Senator Byron Dorgan (De., N.D.) is considering using the Congressional Review Act to have the Senate toss out the FCC's rules relaxation.
As we go to press, the situation is white hot on Capitol Hill, and may well be settled before the end of July. The corporate media lobbies have been reduced to depending on a few tried and true corrupt leaders, most notably Billy Tauzin and Tom DeLay, to carry their water. Even Karl Rove and the Bush administration, which absolutely adores letting Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation own more media, are keeping a low public profile on this topic, because they know that with leading independent media owners, the NRA, William Safire, and the much of the Christian right opposing the FCC -- heck, as we said, just about everyone -- this is political dynamite.
And that is why the people may well win this one. What is crucial is for Americans to flood their members of Congress with telephone calls, letters and emails in the next two weeks telling them to junk the FCC media rules changes. For easily accessible information on how to do that, go to www.mediareform.net/stopthefcc. If supportive members hear from enough people, it will strengthen their backbones; if those on the other side hear from many people, too, it may help them change their minds or at least that it is not worth sacrificing their political careers to enhance Mel Karmazin's and Rupert Murdoch's net worth.
ACTIVIST NOTE:Call your Congressional representatives and demand that they support a rollback of the FCC decision. One phone call from a constituent is more effective than scores of email petitions.
Click here and follow the easy steps for more information.(Don't worry, you don't need to know your Senators' or Rep's names, only your zipcode.)
With Robert W. McChesney
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's scored another publicity coup this week, finishing a solid first in the MoveOn.org PAC online primary that became a high-stakes test of the appeal of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Dean won 139,360 votes, almost 44 percent of those cast in voting Wednesday and Thursday by members of the progressive online activist network. Dean was expected to run well in the voting, which took place the week of his official announcement of candidacy and that was played to his strengths among younger, more web-savvy Democrats. Dean backers focused a good deal of energy on the virtual primary, dispatching tens of thousands of emails urging supporters to register at the site and vote for the increasingly high-profile candidate.
"On Monday, I stood in Burlington, Vermont and said that my campaign -- our campaign -- was built on 'mouse pads, shoe leather, and hope.' Today, we see just how far that combination can go: We have won the Moveon.org primary by a landslide," Dean said while campaigning in California Friday.
But Dean did not score the 50 percent of the vote needed to secure a coveted endorsement from the MoveOn.org PAC. MoveOn.org PAC helped raise more than $4 million in online contributions for progressive candidates in 2002, and has come to be seen as one of the most effective grassroots fund-raising vehicles on the left.
Dean's appeal to MoveOn members, who share many of the anti-war and socially progressive stances he has taken so far in the campaign, was blunted by the appeal of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has worked hard to identify himself as the most aggressively anti-war contender in the race. In the computer-driven campaigning before the vote, Kucinich backers sent thousands of emails urging MoveOn members to "Vote for the Genuine Peace Candidate," and their efforts appear to have had a significant impact on the process.
Though his candidacy has been largely ignored by major media outlets that have given considerable coverage to Dean and other "first-tier" contenders, Kucinich ran a solid second in the MoveOn voting, winning 76,000 votes for almost 24 percent of the total. "I don't think the media can continue to ignore Kucinich after this," said Lee Brown, co-chair of Kucinich's campaign in Wisconsin, which will hold a critical primary on February 17. "Even though Dennis Kucinich's campaign has gotten a lot less attention than the Dean campaign, people are getting the message. Kucinich is the real peace candidate, and the real progressive in this race."
Third-place went to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who is often portrayed as the frontrunner in the increasingly intense Democratic contest. Kerry's vote to authorize President Bush to use the military in Iraq put him at odds with the position of many MoveOn members, but he has scored points since with aggressive criticism of the administration's handling of international relations. The Massachusetts senator won 49,973 votes, or about 16 percent.
None of the other candidates got more than 3.5 percent of the vote in the virtual primary, which drew more voters – 317,639 members participated -- than the 2000 Iowa Democratic caucuses and New Hampshire Democratic primary. The top-three finishes by Dean, Kucinich and Kerry were expected, as they were the candidates who were allowed to make direct pitches to MoveOn members in the days before the voting. The trio were given that opportunity by MoveOn organizers after they a poll last month of members showed them to be the favorite contenders.
Backers of former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, made noise about pulling out of the competition, but decided in the end to remain in the running. Gephardt ended up in fifth place (2.4 percent), behind the top-three candidates and North Carolina Senator John Edwards (3.2 percent), but ahead of Florida Senator Bob Graham (2.2 percent) , former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun (2.2 percent), Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (1.9 percent) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (0.5 percent.) Retired General Wesley Clark, who was not on the ballot but who is pondering a candidacy, received almost 3,000 votes and close to 1 percent of the vote.
While MoveOn.org PAC will not endorse a candidate at this time, the online primary process saw 49,132 participants pledge $1.75 million in contributions to their favorite candidates. Some 54,730 participants pledged to volunteer for the candidate they supported, while 77,192 authorized MoveOn to pass on their e-mail address to their candidate.
"Participation far exceeded our expectations," said Wes Boyd, the treasurer of MoveOn.org PAC. "Our most important objectives have already been met: Early Democratic grassroots involvement; increased contributions and volunteer support for each campaign; and mobilization of the Democratic base to defeat George Bush."
The announcement this week by U.S. District Judge John S. Martin of the Southern District of New York that he would leave the bench because he was fed up with Congressional meddling in federal sentencing decisions highlights growing judicial resentment at the blurring of the separation of powers.
The founders of these United States established an independent federal judiciary with the intent that it would temper the excesses of the executive and legislative branches of government. In recent years, however, Congress has sought to restrict the ability of federal judges to make decisions based on law and reason.
Federal laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, for using a gun in relation to various drug or violent crimes, and for numerous other offenses. Judges have for a number of years argued that adhering to sentencing mandates limits their ability to employ legal knowledge and discretion in determining appropriate punishments for men and women who have been convicted of crimes.
Federal jurists have become increasing agitated over Congressional mandates regarding sentencing, which Supreme Court Justice David Souter says jurists fear will make them "instruments of injustice."
But Congress has continued to move in recent years to increase the injustice by forcing judges to accept mandatory minimum sentence but to strictly obey federal sentencing guidelines. While judges were departing from the sentencing guidelines only in about 18 percent of cases, conservatives in Congress this year attacking even that level of discretion. The House and Senate passed legislation dictating to federal judges what sentences must be imposed. That legislation was criticized by jurists and legal scholars as a dramatic erosion of the lines of separation between the branches of government; and as a power grab by Congress.
Even conservative jurists such as Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained, but the legislation passed and was signed April 30 by President Bush. That's when Martin says he made his decision to quit.
"Congress is mandating things simply because they want to show how tough they are on crime, with no sense of whether this makes sense or is meaningful," explained Martin, who said he particularly objects to the removal of judicial discretion in cases where non-violent criminals face harsh sentences if convicted.
Martin argued that adherence to strict sentencing guidelines has led to the packing of federal prisons with people -- such as low-level drug dealers -- who simply should not be serving sentences of 30, 40, 50 or more years.
"Sentences should be just. We shouldn't be putting everybody in jail for the rest of their life," the 68-year-old judge complained.
In an opinion column that appeared this week in The New York Times, Martin said he was concerned about pay scales for federal judgeships, which he noted are now lower than for second year associates in top law firms. But, he argued, "While I might have stayed on despite the inadequate pay, I no longer want to be part of our unjust criminal justice system."
Appointed to the federal judiciary in 1990 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Martin is one of many jurists from across the political spectrum who have objected to Congressional-mandated minumum sentences and to pressure to obey sentencing guidelines. A 1996 survey of more that 700 federal jurists by the Federal Judicial Center found that almost 70 percent of those questioned objected to mandatory sentencing.
The following year, in testimony before a U.S. House committee, two Supreme Court justices condemned mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes. "I do not think judges should have their sentencing discretion controlled by a mandatory sentence," declared Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "I don't not like mandatory sentences," he said. "I think they can lead to injustice."
One measure of that injustice is the fact that, according to 2000 testimony given by U.S. Sentencing Commission vice chair John Steer, before the House Governmental Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, African American defendants made up 30 percent of those subject to five-year mandatory sentences in 1999, 43 percent to 10-year mandatory sentences, 60 percent to 20-year mandatory sentences and 80 percent to mandatory life in prison. (To learn more about injustices resulting from mandatory minimum sentence rules and federal sentencing guidelines, and about judicial objections to Congressional pressure on the federal courts, check out the website of the national group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) at www.famm.org)
While Judge Martin is leaving the bench, other jurists who remain are also speaking up.
"As a consequence of the mandatory sentences, we (judges) know that justice is not always done," explains U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, of the District of Columbia. "(You) cannot dispense equal justice by playing a numbers game. Judgment and discretion and common sense are essential."
U.S. District Judge Spencer Letts, of the Central District of California, summed up judicial objections when he argued,"Statutory mandatory minimum sentences create injustice because the sentence is determined without looking at the particular defendant," says "It can make no difference whether he is a lifetime criminal or a first-time offender. Indeed, under this sledgehammer approach, it could make no difference if the day before making this one slip in an otherwise unblemished life the defendant had rescued 15 children from a burning building or had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while defending his country."
When the Federal Communications Commission voted June 2 to remove key restrictions on media consolidation, dissident Commissioner Michael Copps warned, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant. American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."
Barely two weeks after Copps uttered those words, he was proven right, as the Senate Commerce Committee responded with rare haste to the public outcry that followed the FCC decision. In a sweeping rejection of the agency's decision to provide already large media conglomerates with opportunities to extend their dominance of the nation's political and cultural discourse, the committee on Thursday endorsed a legislative package that reverses the worst of the rule changes. The legislation also orders the FCC to open up the closed and corrupted process by which it considers rule changes.
While the Commerce Committee action is just the first step toward reversing the FCC decision, Gene Kimmelman, Consumers Union's Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, says, "Today's vote creates enormous momentum to block further mergers among media giants. It represents a victory for those who support more competition and diversity from local and national media. But the fight is not over. Now we are going to carry this momentum to the full Senate and House."
The legislation that cleared the Commerce Committee Thursday would:
* Bar individual corporations from buying up television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's households. Under pressure from big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Fox networks, and Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UBN networks, the FCC had voted to lift the ownership cap to 45 percent.
* Bar individual corporations from buying up the daily newspaper and television and radio stations in local markets. By restoring key aspects of the old "newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership" rule, the committee made it harder for the Gannett, Tribune and Knight-Ridder media corporations to gain control of most media in a community and then create a single newsroom to feed one-size-fits-all news to newspaper readers as well as radio listeners and television viewers. (This measure still needs to be strengthened to assure that a loophole that allows for some cross-ownership in small markets is not exploited.)
* Eliminate an exemption that would have allowed radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel and Infinity, to maintain control of radio stations in markets where they are in violation of ownership caps. Sponsored by Commerce Committee chair John McCain, R-Arizona, this measure could force Clear Channel and other media giants to sell off many of its more than 1,200 radio stations.
* Require the FCC to open up its decision-making process by holding at least five official public hearings, at locations around the country before changing media ownership rules. This is a clear rebuke to FCC chair Michael Powell, who allowed only one official public hearing before the June 2 vote.
* Indicate that Congress wants the FCC to consider not just proposals to loosen ownership rules that are promoted by big media corporations but also steps to strengthen and broaden limits on consolidation and monopoly. This is a signal to the federal courts that Congress wants them to define the public interest more broadly, rather than simply pressuring the FCC to ease ownership rules.
"The airwaves belong to the people," declared U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, as the committee approved key components of the "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Act of 2003" (S.1046) initiative. "Broadcasters use them, under licenses that require localism and a diversity of voices. The actions taken by the FCC to raise the national ownership cap and virtually eliminate the previous ban on broadcast-newspaper combinations ignores that requirement, and advances corporate interests at the expense of the public's interest."
Hailing the committee vote as a firm Congressional response to FCC moves he described as "the fastest, most complete cave in to big corporate interests" he had ever seen, Dorgan said the legislation "restores some sense of reason to this process."
The legislation, which was endorsed by a solid voice vote of the committee, gained bipartisan support from senators who had been flooded with emails, letters and petitions urging them to reverse the FCC's moves. While the total number of communications to members of the committee is not yet clear, it is known that members of Congress have received more than 300,000 messages from foes of the rule changes in the period since June 2. This follows on the unprecedented 750,000 communications that the FCC received from opponents of the rule changes.
Dorgan and other critics of the FCC's moves say their hand has been strengthened significantly by the level of public indignation. But they still have work to do before citizen anger and legislative action restores limits on media consolidation. With support from key senators such as Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the legislation has a change to move forward in the Senate. But barriers are likely to be erected by members of the leadership who are close to the Bush administration, which pressured the three Republicans on the FCC to enact the rule changes.
The task will be even tougher in the House of Representatives, where House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, has indicated his determination to preserve the rule changes. Tauzin, like several other key GOP players in the House, has been a major recipient of campaign contributions from the communications industry, and the Louisiana representative has a record of playing hardball when his corporate allies are threatened.
But Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, says the momentum on behalf of legislation to reverse the FCC is growing. "The Democrats in Congress have started to take these issues a lot more seriously," says Sanders, a veteran advocate for media diversity. "And I am now being approached on a regular basis by Republicans, some of them very conservative, who say the FCC went way too far this time."
Ultimately, Sanders said in recent meetings with his Vermont constituents, the question of whether the FCC changes are reversed rests with the American people. If the level of opposition that has been witnessed in recent weeks is maintained, Sanders says, "If the mail keeps coming, if people keep complaining, members of Congress are going to recognize that they can't hide from this issue."
MILWAUKEE -- When Democratic party activists from across Wisconsin gathered for their party's state convention last weekend, they heard speeches from three presidential candidates and surrogates for several others. They also witnessed the arrival of a new political issue that may turn out to be a significant factor in the elections of 2004.
In speech after speech to the delegates and guests at the convention, members of Congress condemned the June 2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to weaken the few remaining barriers to consolidation of media ownership by the corporate conglomerates that already dominate most of America's political debate and cultural discourse. And the crowd responded with enthusiastic cheering and applause.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the delegates and guests were not cheering populist criticisms of media consolidation and bias by their party's presidential candidates. That's because the candidates failed to focus on media issues. Rather, the crowd was cheering members of Wisconsin's Congressional delegation, who made media ownership issues central to their speeches at the convention. Therein lies the challenge for the Democrats who would be president: Will they recognize in time that media ownership issues have become critical concerns for the grassroots activists who will be critical players in naming the party's 2004 nominee?
The candidates cannot claim ignorance. They all criticized the FCC decisions when they were made. Yet,they have yet to recognize the potential this issue has as an old-fashioned populist political tool.
Certainly, the response of Wisconsin Democrats to the speeches that addressed media ownership issues illustrates the extent to which they have become meaningful matters for their state's party activists. And Wisconsin is not so different from other states. After more than 750,000 Americans contacted the FCC to oppose the rule changes, members of Congress started to wake up to the mood of the country. Now, with more than 100 Democratic members of Congress actively engaged in efforts to reverse the FCC rule changes -- and with dozens of Republicans joining them -- there is a dawning awareness that concerns about media consolidation, monopoly and bias are no longer limited to inside-the-beltway debates between industry lobbyists and watchdog groups.
As members of Congress prepare to take steps to reverse FCC decisions that would loosen rules governing against media consolidation at the local and national levels, the speeches and responses in Milwaukee illustrated the extent to which the Washington insider debate had moved outside to America.
Warning that "the health of democracy is put at risk" when media monopolies are allowed to extend their reach, U.S. Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, drew thunderous applause when he declared, "We cannot afford homogenized news from mega-corporations."
Decrying the warped reporting on events in Washington by "the corporate U.S. news media," U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, a member of the Judiciary Committee, earned a standing ovation for her declaration that, "Restoring democracy to our news media had got to be a part of our Democratic agenda."
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, a pioneering supporter of Congressional efforts to restore controls against media monopoly, echoed Baldwin's call for Democrats to make media ownership an issue in 2004.
Portraying the FCC decision on the ownership rules as another example of Washington bowing to pressure from corporate lobbyists, Feingold said that Democrats need to "show the American people that it's the Democratic party that wants to hear all the diverse voices of America -- not just the corporate few."
Feingold's comments drew chants of "Go get 'em, Russ" from the crowd of more than 1,000 grassroots party activists.
With Obey, Baldwin and Feingold speaking before them, the Democratic presidential contenders should have recognized the potency of the issue. But they didn't.
The three Democratic presidential candidates who attended the convention were all outspoken in their criticism of the FCC in early June. Two of them -- U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio -- are working in Congress with Feingold, Obey, Baldwin, amd key members like U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, and U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and to rescind rule changes that favor media corporations over diversity, competition and local content. But Kerry, Kucinich and the third candidate who appeared at the weekend convention, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, failed to put the same emphasis on media issues that the delegates heard from their Wisconsin representatives.
There's a lesson in this for all of the 2004 presidential contenders. Grassroots Democrats -- along with Greens, Independents and a growing number of Republicans -- want issues of media monopoly, consolidation and commercialization on the national agenda. The smart candidates will be the ones who share in that recognition, and who speak to it with the insight and the passion that Feingold, Baldwin and Obey display. In a presidential contest where Democrats are still trying to define themselves, a willingness to raise media ownership issues on a regular basis could be the characteristic that allows the right contender to draw lines of real distinction not just from Bush but from more cautious Democrats.
Democratic presidential candidates were handed a dream audience of 1,000 "ready-for-action" labor, civil rights, peace and economic justice campaigners at the Take Back America conference organized in Washington last week by the Campaign for America's Future. And the 2004 contenders grabbed for it, delivering some of the better speeches of a campaign that remains rhetorically -- and directionally -- challenged. But it was a non-candidate who won the hearts and minds of the crowd with a "Cross of Gold" speech for the 21st century.
Recalling the populism and old-school progressivism of the era in which William Jennings Bryan stirred the Democratic National Convention of 1896 to enter into the great struggle between privilege and democracy -- and to spontaneously nominate the young Nebraskan for president -- journalist and former presidential aide Bill Moyers delivered a call to arms against "government of, by and for the ruling corporate class."
Condemning "the unholy alliance between government and wealth" and the compassionate conservative spin that tries to make "the rape of America sound like a consensual date," Moyers charged that "rightwing wrecking crews" assembled by the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies were out to bankrupt government. Then, he said, they would privatize public services in order to enrich the corporate interests that fund campaigns and provide golden parachutes to pliable politicians. If unchecked, Moyers warned, the result of these machinations will be the dismantling of "every last brick of the social contract."
"I think this is a deliberate, intentional destruction of the United States of America," said Moyers, as he called for the progressives gathered in Washington -- and for their allies across the United States -- to organize not merely in defense of social and economic justice but in order to preserve democracy itself. Paraphrasing the words of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president rallied the nation to battle against slavery, Moyers declared, "our nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it could survive half slave and half free."
There was little doubt that the crowd of activists from across the country would have nominated Moyers by acclamation when he finished a remarkable address in which he challenged not just the policies of the Bush Administration but the failures of Democratic leaders in Congress to effectively challenge the president and his minions. In the face of what he described as "a radical assault" on American values by those who seek to redistribute wealth upward from the many to a wealthy few, Moyers said he could not understand why "the Democrats are afraid to be branded class warriors in a war the other side started and is winning."
Several of the Democratic presidential contenders who addressed the crowd after Moyers picked up pieces of his argument. Former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun actually quoted William Jennings Bryan, while North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry tried -- with about as much success as Al Gore in 2000 -- to sound populist. Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt promised not to be "Bush-lite," and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean drew warm applause when he said the way for Democrats to get elected "is not to be like Republicans, but to stand up against them and fight." Ultimately, however, only the Rev. Al Sharpton and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich came close to matching the fury and the passion of the crowd.
Kucinich, who earned nine standing ovations for his antiwar and anti-corporate free trade rhetoric, probably did more to advance his candidacy than any of the other contenders. But he never got to the place Moyers reached with a speech that legal scholar Jamie Raskin described as one of the most "amazing and spellbinding" addresses he had ever heard. Author and activist Frances Moore Lappe said she was close to tears as she thanked Moyers for providing precisely the mixture of perspective and hope that progressives need as they prepare to challenge the right in 2004.
That, Moyers explained, was the point of his address, which reflected on White House political czar Karl Rove's oft-stated admiration for Mark Hanna, the Ohio political boss who managed the campaigns and the presidency of conservative Republican William McKinley. It was McKinley who beat Bryan in 1896 and -- with Hanna's help -- fashioned a White House that served the interests of the corporate trusts.
Comparing the excesses of Hanna and Rove, and McKinley and Bush, Moyers said "the social dislocations and the meanness" of the 19th century were being renewed by a new generation of politicians who, like their predecessors, seek to strangle the spirit of the American revolution "in the hard grip of the ruling class."
To break that grip, Moyers said, progressives of today must learn from the revolutionaries and reformers of old. Recalling the progressive movement that rose up in the first years of the 20th century to preserve a "balance between wealth and commonwealth," and the successes of the New Dealers who turned progressive ideals into national policy, Moyers told the crowd to "get back in the fight." "Hear me!" he cried. "Allow yourself that conceit to believe that the flame of democracy will never go out as long as there is one candle in your hand."
While others were campaigning last week, Moyers was tending the flame of democracy. In doing so, he unwittingly made himself the candle holder-in-chief for those who seek to spark a new progressive era.
Monday's 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to remove barriers to corporate consolidation of control over the media capped a process that, even by the standards of George W. Bush's Washington, bent the rules to serve the special interests.
But the special interests and their allies in the FCC majority may finally have bent those rules to the breaking point. Indeed, even as he objected to Monday's decision, dissenting Commissioner Michael Copps said, "The obscurity of this issue that many have relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood this issue, is gone forever."
There is no question that, for the first time in recent American history, media has become a political issue. And, perhaps as significantly, the scandalous way in which the FCC does business has been exposed. "If ever we needed an example of what is wrong with the way in which the FCC handles issues of media ownership, the fight over these rule changes provides it," says US Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the leading critic of media consolidation in Congress. "We have seen that, at the FCC, the regulators do not regulate the industry. It's the opposite: The industry regulates the regulators. And that has to change."
In addition to provoking passionate opposition from civil rights, consumer, labor, religious and community groups across the country, this spring's debate over the six sweeping changes in media ownership regulations drew more scrutiny of the FCC than had ever before been seen. And that attention has revealed an agency where corporations that are supposed to be regulated enjoy extraordinary access to the regulators – and the favorable treatment that extends from that access.
The FCC majority went to such extremes in assuring a result that would satisfy the demands of the nation's most powerful media corporations that the two dissenting commissioners took the rare step of criticizing the majority for producing what Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein referred to as an "outcome-driven political document."
"When this full document is finally made public, I expect it will be torn apart by media experts, academics, consumer groups, activists, and most of all, the American people," explained Adelstein. "They will find it riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, false assumptions and outcome-driven thinking."
In a city where political discourse is still tempered at most turns by cautious and false politeness, Adelstein was refreshingly blunt Monday as he stated the reasons for his dissent. While noting the overwhelming opposition to the rule changes expressed by consumer, labor, religious, civil rights, journalism and academic groups, the commissioner focused in particular on the concerns stated by the more than 750,000 citizens who personally contacted the FCC to signal their fears about media consolidation and monopoly. Speaking of the American people, Adelstein said, "Today's decision overrides their better judgment. It instead relies on the reasoning of a handful of powerful media companies who have a vested financial interest. Those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves won out over the public."
How did "those who stand to benefit by buying and selling the public airwaves" win out?
In the weeks before Monday's vote, the Center for Public Integrity detailed the cozy relationship between the FCC majority, key staffers and the industries they are supposed to police.
Last month, the Center revealed that FCC commissioners and staffers have taken more than 2,500 junkets – at a cost of almost $2.8 million -- that were paid for by the interests they are supposed to police. And it came as no surprise to anyone that FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the primary proponent of the six rule changes, was among the chief recipients of the first-class flights, luxury hotel suites and other favors that the media giants used to influence the decision-making process. Assessing the study's findings, Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis said, "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."
The idea grew even more laughable on the eve of Monday's vote, as the same Washington-based public interest research center revealed that, over the past eight months, owners and lobbyists for the country's largest broadcasting conglomerates met behind closed doors with FCC officials 71 times to discuss the rule changes that would allow big media to get dramatically bigger.
While the media conglomerates that favor the relaxing of ownership rules continue to claim that they are in competition with one another, the Center for Public Integrity study revealed that, "At some of the sessions (with commissioners and FCC staffers) executives from the nation's top broadcasters, such as News Corp./Fox, General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC, teamed together to lobby for the proposed changes."
In a measure of how seriously the broadcast conglomerates took the proposed rule changes – which were designed to make it dramatically easier for a single company to control most of the media in one city, while also permitting national networks to buy up more local stations -- the most powerful men in global media trekked to the FCC building for the closed door meetings. "Media moguls Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns Fox, and Mel Karmazin of Viacom, which owns CBS, virtually dashed from one FCC office to another for a series of private meetings with commissioners and top staff in late January and early February, as the agency was crafting the controversial proposals," explained the Center's Bob Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.
Karmazin and other Viacom officials and lobbyists met 45 times with the FCC commissioners and staffers, while News Corp. officials joined in 25 such closed-door meetings. Representatives of broadcast powerhouses such as ABC, NBC, Disney and Clear Channel, and newspaper chains such as Gannett, Cox and Hearst gathered separately and together for the 71 private meetings with the FCC.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these closed-to-the-public sessions were held with FCC commissioners and staffers who were viewed as being friendly to the corporations, and supportive of the rule changes that have been proposed. FCC Chairman Powell and his legal advisor Susan Eid, met privately with both News Corp.'s Murdoch and Viacom's Karmazin. Powell, his chief of staff Marsha MacBride, and Eid also met with NBC executives; while Powell and MacBride huddled with Gannett's representatives.
In all, Powell, Eid, MacBride and Ken Ferree, the FCC Media Bureau Chief who is considered to be the prime architect of the ownership rule changes, participated in at least 35 closed-door sessions with executives of major media conglomerates and their minions.
Powell and the two other Republican commissioners, who also met frequently with industry representatives, on Monday formed the 3-2 majority to endorse the ownership rule changes pushed by big media.
At the same time that Powell was meeting privately with the corporate chieftains, he was avoiding public hearings organized by Copps and Adelstein, the two Democratic FCC commissioners who tried unsuccessfully to open up decision-making process about rule changes that Copps says "will recast our entire media landscape for years to come."
"Good, sustainable rules are the result of an open administrative process and a serious attempt to gather all the relevant facts," Copps said Monday. "Bad rules and legal vulnerability result from an opaque regulatory process and inadequate data. Unfortunately, today's rules fall into the latter camp."
In his dissent, Copps focused on the failure of the Commission's majority to adequately consider public opinion -- or the public interest.
"I am concerned that this proceeding has been run as a classic inside-the-Beltway process with too little outreach from the Commission and too little opportunity for public participation in this far-reaching review of critical media concentration protections," said Copps. "This is the way the Commission usually does business, we are told. Well, I submit this is too important to be treated on a business-as-usual basis."
The triumph of the inside-the-Beltway approach was evident in the refusal of FCC Chairman Powell to schedule a sufficient number of public hearings, or to attend hearings arranged by others. "Proceeding on an assumption that all expertise does not reside within the Beltway, I sought to have the Commission hold a series of forums and roundtables around the country that would include significant input from both traditional and non-traditional stakeholders," recalled Copps. "After an initial flat denial we were given only one official hearing, and it was less than 100 miles outside the Beltway in Richmond, Virginia."
After the February session in Richmond, Powell refused at least twelve invitations to participate in semiofficial hearings at which Copps and Adelstein were present. Powell, who jetted across this country this spring to stay in the luxury suites provided by the corporations that were lobbying for the rule changes, said he was too busy to make it to those public sessions.
Powell would not go to the public, and he and his aides also declined to afford equal access to groups advocating the public interest. According to Williams, "The 71 meetings FCC officials have held with top broadcasters were in stark contrast to the number of private sessions with Consumers Union and the Media Access Project, the two major consumer groups working on the issue. Those two groups have had only five such sessions with commissioners and other agency officials since the proposals first surfaced eight months ago."
In his dissent, Copps recounted how he was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to gather more public comment, encourage adequate research on the potential impact of the rule changes and, ultimately, to delay Powell's rush to close the debate with Monday's vote.
"When a draft proposal, not including the proposed text of the new rules themselves, was circulated to Commissioners a mere three weeks before today's vote, we formally requested that the Commission postpone today's meeting to provide additional time to study more thoroughly the impact of the proposals and their interplay, and to see if common ground could be found," Copps complained. "Under long-standing Commission practices, such requests from Commissioners have generally been honored. That request was also denied."
There is no question that the denial of public input and the public interest are disappointing, even scandalous. But in disappointment and anger at scandalous behavior, there can be strength. Because Congress has the power to intervene to restore media ownership rules gutted Monday by the FCC -- and with members as divergent in their views as North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan and Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott indicating that they want to act on the issue -- an angry public might yet be heard.
As Copps said in his statement of dissent Monday, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant.American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."
Just as Congress has the power to reverse the worst of the FCC's decisions, so Congress has the power to police the policeman. The complaints of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, the revelations from the Center for Public Integrity and the public outcry over Monday's decision make the case for a dramatic change in how the FCC does business. Indeed, says Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders, "We now have two outrageous situations that need to be addressed by Congress: the new media ownership rules and the way in which those rules were made. The incestuous relationships between regulators and the industries they are supposed to regulate have been exposed. The situation is so outrageous that I think the American people are going to tell Congress: This has to be addressed."
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.)