The Boston Phoenix
January 20 - 27, 2000



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 was about.

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 jet.

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 Media Channel, 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 community opposition.

When campaign-finance-reform advocate McCain says the system corrupts everyone, he's not kidding.