FCC says no 'stifling' done over localism


WASHINGTON -- FCC investigators refuted accusations by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that commission officials attempted to “stifle” staff reports critical of the agency’s media consolidation proposals.

Concluding an investigation led by assistant inspector general Cara Conover, the FCC inspector general’s office said Friday that “the evidence did not substantiate allegations that two draft research reports of staff economists in the commission’s media bureau had been suppressed by senior managers at the commission or that senior managers had ordered one of the reports to be destroyed.”

The reports documented how locally owned TV stations produce more local news than stations owned by outsiders. Critics alleged that FCC leaders were unhappy because the reports undermined the policies of then-chairman Michael Powell, who was pushing for a relaxation of ownership cap rules that would permit more industry consolidation.

In August, Boxer lashed out at FCC chairman Kevin Martin during an oversight hearing. “I think there’s work that’s been done, and it’s been stifled, and I don’t know who stifled it,” she said.

Despite the inspector general’s investigation, at least one commissioner wasn’t ready to concede that the books had not been cooked. Democratic commissioner Michael Copps said “a nagging feeling remains that we don’t yet have the entire story.”

Copps complained that the report was more notable for what was left out.

“Today’s report is most notable for what it fails to contain,” he said. “It doesn’t include interviews with key FCC staff. It declined to seek interviews with FCC officials all the way up the chain of command. And it doesn’t explain why a study that reached striking and exceedingly relevant conclusions wasn’t finalized and made a part of the record, even though supervising economists concluded that the technical flaws could be easily fixed.”

Attempts to contact Boxer’s office were unsuccessful.

When considering whether to loosen rules on media ownership, the agency is required to examine the impact on localism, competition and diversity. The FCC generally defines localism as the level of responsiveness of a station to the needs of its community.

The 2003 action to loosen the ownership rules sparked a backlash among the public and within Congress. In June 2004, a federal appeals court rejected the agency’s reasoning on most of the rules and ordered it to try again.

Recently, the commission released its latest studies. Martin has told aides he wants to wrap up the proceedings early next year, if not before.