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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.

Strange discrepancy
Resource Box:
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 in another.

    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.

    Suspicions confirmed

    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 companies.

    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.