McCain and the FCC: And now, the rest of the story
Media by Dan Kennedy
Senator John McCain's presidential campaign appears to be back on track
following criticism earlier this month that he pressured the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) to act on a matter that would benefit one of
his financial contributors. McCain's political recovery, though, has been
helped along by the media's stunningly incomplete portrayal of what the dispute
The story went national on January 5, when the Boston Globe's Walter
Robinson reported that McCain had written to the FCC demanding that it act on a
three-way television-license transfer in Pittsburgh that would benefit Lowell
"Bud" Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications. Robinson revealed that Paxson
and his associates had contributed $20,000 to McCain's presidential campaign,
and that McCain had accepted cut-rate transportation on Paxson's corporate
McCain, all wounded indignation the following evening at a Republican forum in
New Hampshire, replied that the FCC had delayed acting for no reason other than
sloth and inertia, and said that, in any case, he had not urged the agency to
decide one way or the other. (That's technically true, though Robinson reported
that FCC officials believed McCain was improperly leaning on them to approve
the transfer.) "The average time the FCC takes in such a case is 418 days, and
this was 700 days," McCain said.
What's missing from that invocation of bureaucracy-run-amok is a crucial fact:
the license transfer has been an extremely contentious issue in Pittsburgh for
two and a half years, with a reported 40,000 calls, letters, and petition
signatures being registered to protest the impending loss of one of the city's
two public television stations.
The transfer was proposed by WQED, the foundation that runs Pittsburgh's public
TV stations, WQED and WQEX. The foundation has been wrestling for years with a
$12 million to $14 million deficit. In 1996, it tried to sell the
smaller station, WQEX, only to be turned down by the FCC, which refused to
allow an educational-broadcasting license to fall into the hands of a
commercial operation. 'QED's next step was to drop all original programming
from 'QEX and simply simulcast the 'QED line-up. Thus having made its second
station seem irrelevant, the foundation then proposed a complicated maneuver
whereby WPCB, an evangelical Christian station, would take WQEX's spot on the
dial. Paxson Communications -- which owns or operates approximately 70
television stations, with about 50 additional network affiliates -- would grab
the position WPCB was vacating. WQED and WPCB's owner, Cornerstone TeleVision,
would then split $35 million in Paxson money.
The FCC actually approved this arrangement in December, but it fell apart last
week. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cornerstone concluded
that it could not operate within the strictures of the FCC's rules for
educational broadcasting, which prohibit religious proselytizing.
"This is a controversial case with enormous community involvement," says West
Virginia University sociology professor Jerry Starr, a leader of the opposition
and the executive director of the recently founded Citizens for Independent
Public Broadcasting. "It was an unprecedented attempt by this ultraconservative
religious broadcaster to take over an educational license, all financed by
Paxson." Adds Andy Newman, editor of the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper:
"It was a huge issue in this market."
For the most part, though, the media have been content to accept McCain's
explanation that he was simply trying to jolt a slow-moving bureaucracy. Among
the few exceptions have been the Wall Street Journal editorial page,
which published a negative slant on Starr's activities on January 7 (without,
says Starr, even bothering to contact him), and the
a new online project headed by progressive media
activist Danny Schechter.
Far more typical of media reaction were Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's Face
the Nation, who went on Imus in the Morning last week to pronounce
McCain's FCC intervention a non-issue, and Globe columnist David Nyhan,
who wrote that he fully endorsed McCain's explanation that "he did nothing more
than needle the FCC and other bureaucracies to stop foot-dragging on decisions
pending." Proving that ignorance is no impediment to ham-handed
opinionmongering, Slate's Timothy Noah defended McCain by observing that
"this was the second of two PBS affiliates in Pittsburgh. How many public TV
stations does Pittsburgh need?"
In fact, Jerry Starr contends that WQEX was actually the more interesting of
Pittsburgh's two public stations -- featuring local public-affairs shows and
such non-PBS fare as the human-rights series Rights & Wrongs
(co-produced by the aforementioned Schechter) -- before management sentenced it
to death by simulcasting.
It would appear that Walter Robinson's muckraking job was merely a good start.
McCain didn't just pressure the FCC to stop stalling on a decision that could
benefit a contributor. He pressured the FCC to sign off on a sleazy deal that
would deliver a publicly owned station into the hands of the religious right,
acting against the best interests of the public and in the face of vehement
When campaign-finance-reform advocate McCain says the system corrupts everyone,
he's not kidding.