FCC to Get 12,500 'Armstrong' Complaints

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Anti-big-media activist group Free Press says it has sent a 12,500-signature e-mail complaints about Armstrong Williams directly to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell Thursday, and plans to send it to the offices of the heads of the House and Senate Commerce committees.

That news followed an FCC meeting at which Enforcement Bureau Chief David Solomon said he hadn't looked at several letters the commission had received about Armstrong, couldn't say whether or not they were complaints or whether the FCC was investigating the incident.

Free Press wants the FCC and Congress to investigate a deal in which Williams, a conservative radio and TV commentator and columnist, was paid $240,00 by the administration to promote its No Child Left Behind education policy. The administration has been criticized, including by the GAO, for several similar pay-for-promo deals, including video news releases on health care and drug-abuse prevention.

If Williams did not disclose that payment--which Williams has suggested he did--it would appear to be a violation of FCC policy against payola. If someone is paid to broadcast information, that payment must be disclosed to the station licensee, who must then include a sponsor identification with the broadcast.

Free Press generated the complaints via an online form on the first page of its Web site, freepress.net.

Following is the text of the complaint:

"The recent reports that commentator Armstrong Williams was secretly paid by the government to promote the Bush administration's education policy on national television and radio stations are profoundly disturbing.

These revelations raise serious questions: Just how widespread is this "payola punditry"?  How many of our primetime debates are guided by commentators on a hidden government payroll? Does this phenomenon stretch beyond the government? Why haven't the broadcasters been more diligent in rejecting such propaganda? What protections does the public have to safeguard our democracy against such brazen attempts to manipulate public opinion?

"As a concerned citizen, I demand an investigation that answers these questions and takes seriously broadcasters' legal obligations to serve the public interest. Broadcasting political commentary without disclosing the sponsor of the opinions is a serious violation of existing laws designed to protect citizens. Broadcasters must make strong efforts to find out who has paid for their commentary. This information must be announced before or after the broadcast. In the case of Armstrong Williams, none of this happened.  We must find out why.

"This situation must be investigated without delay and with exhaustive thoroughness by both the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission."
The FCC's Enforcement Bureau has said it treats complaints seriously, "whether there is one, 100, or 1,000."