Communications industry cozies up with the 'What, me regulate?' crowd at the FCC
By Brendan I. Koerner
As part of the mind-numbing alphabet soup of Beltway agencies, the
Federal Communications Commission rarely receives much attention from
the mainstream press. Various trade publications -- Communications
Daily, Broadcasting and Cable -- do a fine job of tracking
the FCC's arcane work, but they're geared toward a narrow audience
of corporate strategists and hardcore policy wonks. To Joe Q. Public,
the FCC is still best known for harassing George Carlin over his infamous
"Seven Dirty Words" routine. Beyond that, the commission is pretty
much a mystery.
But the Information Age has converted the once-moribund FCC into a
bureaucratic powerhouse. The commission oversees an infrastructure
of airwaves, telephone lines, and cable conduits that are the backbone
of a $950 billion-a-year industry. As the financial stakes have risen,
the private-sector lobbyists have become increasingly adept at peddling
their pro-business agenda to the FCC. But at what cost to the public,
whose interests the FCC is theoretically charged with protecting?
That was the key question I hoped to address in my cover story for
Mother Jones, which hit newsstands in September. The reporting,
however, dates back to the early spring, when I first took note of
the meteoric ascent of Michael K. Powell, the FCC's 38-year-old chairman.
Colin's son and an ex-Army officer himself, the junior Powell was
elevated to the FCC's chairmanship last January, and he immediately
made clear his deregulatory bent. Powell indicated that he would be
no great fan of using the FCC's authority to nix mega-mergers; he
was quoted as calling the public-interest standard as "about as empty
a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency."
I was tempted to focus my reporting solely on Powell, but the ever-wise
Monika Bauerlein, Mother Jones's features editor, had a more
far-sighted plan - why not investigate how corporate lobbyists have
led the Powell-guided FCC to abandon its public-interest mission?
It was an ambitious assignment, especially given the magazine's five-week
time frame. But what investigative reporter worth his or her salt
doesn't crave a challenge? I bit.
Communications Policy Sources
Jeff Chester, executive director, Center for Digital Democracy: 202-232-2234
Mark Crispin Miller, founder, Project on Media Ownership: 212-998-5188
Bill Allison, managing editor, Center for Public Integrity: 202-466-1300
Robert McChesney, author, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: 217-244-1421
Dennis Wharton, spokesman, National Association of Broadcasters: 202-429-5350
David Fiske, spokesman, Federal Communications Co.: 202-418-0513
There were few leads to work with, save for the Center for Public
Integrity's indispensable report "Off the Record," a primer on Big
Media's political influence. CPI had sifted through FCC travel documents
and found a disturbing pattern of industry-paid junkets. I made an
inquiry with CPI's research team, which informed me that all FCC disclosure
documents - travel statements, legal proceedings, meeting agendas
- are warehoused at the agency's southwest Washington headquarters,
affectionately dubbed the Portals. The documents were a mess, I was
warned, but at least the commission had a good reputation for transparency
- FOIA requests were not required to inspect the FCC's filings.
It was a good place to start, and Mother Jones dispatched an
industrious young reporter, Michael Scherer, to the Portals on a massive
photocopying mission - anything and everything from the past year
was to be copied. When I met him in New York, he passed along a duffel
bag filled with thousands upon thousands of FCC documents, loosely
organized by type - travel statements in one bundle, ex parte minutes
All set. Time to start digging.
The FCC's ethics office does not summarize its disclosure forms, which
meant hours upon hours of scribbling numbers in steno books, trying
to add up the outlays. Scherer and I eventually concluded that industry
expenditures on FCC travel had increased by more than 60 percent in
the past six months, a telltale rise that illustrates the private
sector's mounting influence over the agency. We also were taken aback
by the exotic nature of many corporate-paid junkets - for every visit
to Peoria or Yuma, there seemed to be a more lavish trip to Paris
or Sao Paolo on the books.
But I was most intrigued by the meeting dockets, which list the day-to-day
appointments of the FCC's commissioners. Going through the weekly
agendas, I noted that the vast majority - as much as 90 percent -
of the FCC's meetings were with industry representatives, rather than
public interest advocates. It seemed a strange discrepancy for an
agency officially committed to defending the public domain, and it
led me to several fruitful interviews with frustrated public-interest
lawyers with tales of woe to share - one legal team from Georgetown,
for example, complained that it was only allocated a few minutes of
face time with the FCC's staff, while its corporate opponents, Rupert
Murdoch's News Corporation Ltd., enjoyed nearly daily pow-wows. Such
are the luxuries of being able to retain an army of K Street lobbyists.
All that was well and good, but the piece still lacked zing - I couldn't
realistically expect anyone to read 4,500 words on communications
policy without dishing out a few more examples of corporate chicanery.
Fortunately, there was plenty of Astroturf to investigate. "Astroturf"
is Beltway slang for fake grassroots organizations, corporate-sponsored
groups that lend pro-industry causes a veneer of moral legitimacy.
While examining the FCC's disclosure documents, I had noticed several
references to an outfit known as the Alliance for Public Technology
(APT), a benevolent-sounding lobby based in Washington D.C. that purported
to "foster access to affordable and useful information and communication
services and technologies by all people." But I smelled a rat, particularly
when I came across a piece of Congressional testimony via Nexis in
which an APT board member supported a pet bill of the Baby Bell phone
My suspicions were affirmed when I tried to "990" the APT - that is,
request their tax forms. By law, non-profits that enjoy 501(c)3 tax-exempt
status must furnish their tax returns upon request. If they do not
do so within 24 hours, they risk losing their IRS classification.
But when I asked the APT's executive director for her tax info, I
was at first rebuffed - if memory serves, the executive director's
words were, "We don't have to show you anything." Only when I threatened
to report the APT to the Internal Revenue Service was I furnished
with the appropriate forms, which revealed that the group was a subsidiary
of Issue Dynamics, a powerful lobbying firm that works on behalf of
the Baby Bells.
One of the last pieces of the puzzle was the lead, which Bauerlein
and I agreed should be anecdotal. Perusing Powell's personal Web site,
I came across a speech that he delivered in December 2000, in which
he characterized regulation as an "oppressor." The speech had been
delivered at something called the Progress and Freedom Foundation
(PFF), a name that was not familiar to me. But I visited the PFF's
Web site and found a detailed reference to the conference at which
Powell had delivered his address. Using the always wonderous Google,
I discovered that most attendees were lobbyists for Verizon, AOL,
and other big-name communications players.
Intrigued, I phoned the PFF and asked for some background information
on the group's communications policy program. They sent me a six-year-old
report on telecommunications, in which they proposed disbanding the
FCC altogether - perhaps industry's biggest pipe dream. That Powell,
the soon-to-be-installed FCC chairman, was appealing to this group
was disturbing evidence of his commitment to abdicating government's
role in regulating communications.
In investigative journalism, there is rarely a surer sign of success
than a reluctant interviewee turning effusive once the article's been
published. And that was the case with Powell and his fellow Bush-appointed
commissioners; despite repeated interview requests, channeled through
the FCC's press office, not one of my phone calls was ever returned.
But when the issue hit the stands and Communications Daily
picked up the reporting -- particularly the junket data -- the FCC's
spokesman was quick to offer excuse after excuse. It was a small victory,
but one I savored nonetheless.
Brendan I. Koerner is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation
and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. His "Losing
Signal" article can be read at www.motherjones.com/magazine/SO01/fcc.html.