The Federal Communications Commission’s inspector general's office concluded that the evidence does not support allegations that the FCC under former chairman Michael Powell suppressed or destroyed drafts of two media-ownership reports by staff economists.
The investigation was requested by FCC chairman Kevin Martin after prompting from several Democratic senators, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who were concerned about claims that the reports -- “Do Local Owners Deliver More Localism” and “Review of the Radio Industry, 2003” -- had been quashed for political reasons. Boxer remained unconvinced by the IG's conclusions, as did commissioner Michael Copps.
According to the IG's office, which released the findings Friday, it found "no pattern or practice" of suppressing research. That finding did not assuage the Senators, one of whom suggested the report was air brushing over the problem.
Calling it the biggest investigation in the agency's history, the IG's office said it reviewed more than 150,000 pages of documents and interviewed 35 current and former staffers, although that did not include the former staffer, Prof. Adam Candeub of Michigan State University, who leveled the allegations about suppression to Boxer and in the media, nor one of the authors of a study in question. They refused to testify, said the IG report, and the IG has no power to compel testimony from nonfederal employees.
In September 2006, Martin vowed to investigate the allegations that a staff study on local TV-station ownership, the first of the two studies at issue, was intentionally destroyed.
Deregulation critic Boxer had produced a copy of an FCC “working paper” from June 2004 that concluded that locally owned TV stations do significantly more local news than network-owned or “non-locally” owned stations.
"Who suppressed this?," she asked Martin, who said neither he nor anyone on his staff had seen the paper and pointed out that it had been produced under Powell. Powell told B&C at the time that he had “never seen the report, did not know about it and never ordered anything destroyed,” according to a statement relayed by his personal assistant.
Martin later said that the study was relevant to proceedings on localism and ownership and that it had been made part of those.
Boxer complained that after three years, the FCC had still not completed a proceeding on local ownership. The study was part of that proceeding.
While the IG conceded that the report did not have an "efficient history" through the commisison, the delays were not due to any political sabotage and commission personnel had worked "diligently and in good faith" on the report, although there could be some management lessons in the inefficiency of the process.
Boxer was not convinced by the IG report. "It seems pretty clear that Mr. [Ken] Ferree -- who was a political appointee -- decided to stuff the draft radio report in a drawer because he didn't like what it said and the timing of it couldn't have been worse for the FCC," said Boxer's communications director, Natalie Ravitz.
"Just a few months earlier, the FCC had made the controversial decision to loosen rules on virtually all areas of media ownership -- including radio -- and this report illustrated the very concerns raised by critics of the FCC's decision," Ravitz added. "They didn't like what the report said, so they put it in a drawer."
Ferree, who was Media Bureau chief at the FCC, told B&C when the report flap first surfaced that there are probably thousands of pages of material from lawyers and economists that never see the light of day for any number of reasons, including management of resources, "but it would not be because of the results," he said. "There are lots of things that never go out the door."
“The Inspector General’s report, unfortunately, air brushes with some pretty soft colors what’s been going on at the FCC with regard to media consolidation," said Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who joined Boxer in the call for an investigation. "For example, one of the e-mails included in the report clearly reveals a mind set at the FCC against disclosing information that would document the negative impact of media consolidation. I think there’s more to this than the Inspector General was willing to see, even though some of it was in plain sight.”
Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was equally unimpressed. "Today's report is most notable for what it fails to contain," he told B&C in an e-mailed comment. "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. The nagging feeling remains that we don't yet have the entire story."