WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission ordered its staff to destroy all copies of a draft study that suggested greater concentration of media ownership would hurt local TV news coverage, a former lawyer at the agency says.
The report, written in 2004, came to light during the Senate confirmation hearing for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. received a copy of the report "indirectly from someone within the FCC who believed the information should be made public," according to Boxer spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz.
Adam Candeub, now a law professor at Michigan State University, said senior managers at the agency ordered that "every last piece" of the report be destroyed. "The whole project was just stopped — end of discussion," he said. Candeub was a lawyer in the FCC's Media Bureau at the time the report was written and communicated frequently with its authors, he said.
In a letter sent to Martin on Wednesday, Boxer said she was "dismayed that this report, which was done at taxpayer expense more than two years ago, and which concluded that localism is beneficial to the public, was shoved in a drawer."
In the letter, Boxer asked whether any other commissioners "past or present" knew of the report's existence and why it was never made public. She also asked whether it was "shelved because the outcome was not to the liking of some of the commissioners and/or any outside powerful interests?"
In a letter to Boxer on Thursday, Martin noted that he was not chairman at the time it was written, that he had not seen it before Tuesday's hearing, nor had any members of his staff or any other commissioners, past or present.
The chairman said it was unclear why the report was never released to the public, that he was attempting to determine why but that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell and senior management at the Media Bureau are no longer with the agency.
He also wrote that "the report appears to cover issues relevant to both our open localism proceeding and our recently commenced media ownership proceeding" and that it had been included in the record Tuesday. The inclusion makes the document available on the FCC's Web site.
The report, written by two economists in the FCC's Media Bureau, analyzed a database of 4,078 individual news stories broadcast in 1998. The broadcasts were obtained from Danilo Yanich, a professor and researcher at the University of Delaware, and were originally gathered by the Pew Foundation's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The analysis showed local ownership of television stations adds almost five and one-half minutes of total news to broadcasts and more than three minutes of "on-location" news. The conclusion is at odds with FCC arguments made when it voted in 2003 to increase the number of television stations a company could own in a single market. It was part of a broader decision liberalizing ownership rules.
At that time, the agency pointed to evidence that "commonly owned television stations are more likely to carry local news than other stations."
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 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. The debate has since been reopened, and the FCC has scheduled a public hearing on the matter in Los Angeles on Oct. 3.
The report was begun after then-Chairman Powell ordered the creation of a task force to study localism in broadcasting in August of 2003. Powell stepped down from the commission and was replaced by Martin in March 2005. Powell did not return a call seeking comment.
The authors of the report, Keith Brown and Peter Alexander, both declined to comment. Brown has left public service while Alexander is still at the FCC. Yanich confirmed the two men were the authors. Both have written extensively on media and telecommunications policy.
Yanich said the report was "extremely well done. It should have helped to inform policy."
Boxer's office said if she does not receive adequate answers to her questions, she will push for an investigation by the FCC inspector general.
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who along with fellow Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps voted against liberalizing the ownership rules, said he was unaware of the study's existence and said it was an outrage that it was "deep-sixed."
"It feels like we were cheated of getting the data," he said. "We need to know the facts."
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., also a member of the committee, sent a letter to Martin on Thursday asking that he "examine the circumstances surrounding the suppression of this report."