The nation's top broadcasters have met behind closed doors with Federal Communications Commission officials more than 70 times to discuss a sweeping set of proposals to relax media ownership rules, the Center for Public Integrity has discovered.
The private sessions included dozens of meetings between broadcasters and the agency's five commissioners and their top advisors. A June 2 vote is scheduled on the controversial proposals, which critics fear will touch off a major new round of media consolidation. See a list of the media ownership proposals.
The 71 meetings FCC officials have held with top broadcasters were in stark contrast to the number of private sessions with Consumers Union and the Media Access Project, the two major consumer groups working on the issue. Those two groups have had only five such sessions with commissioners and other agency officials since the proposals first surfaced eight months ago.
Media moguls Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns Fox, and Mel Karmazin of Viacom, which owns CBS, virtually dashed from one FCC office to another for a series of private meetings with commissioners and top staff in late January and early February, as the agency was crafting the controversial proposals.Rather than send their lobbyists to the closed door meetings, many of the broadcasting behemoths who stand to benefit the most from the pending relaxation of the ownership rules have sent their top executives to lobby the agency personally.
One particularly busy day was March 11, when 18 FCC officials met with executives and representatives of ABC and its parent company, Disney, in six different sessions.All told, the five FCC commissioners and 31 other top officials participated in such meetings since the rules were first proposed in September 2002. A total of 63 executives and representatives of the nation's top ten television and radio broadcasters participated in the meetings.
Some of the sessions included several commissioners and top staff, all gathered in one room to discuss the proposed rule changes with broadcasters. At some of the sessions executives from the nation's top broadcasters, such as News Corp./Fox, General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC, teamed together to lobby for the proposed changes.
The closed-door sessions, which are officially called ex parte meetings, are allowed under FCC rules. The meetings are not recorded, nor are the participants required to keep detailed minutes of the sessions. Non-FCC people who participate in the meetings are supposed to file a notice of the session by the end of the following day. The notice is supposed to include a summary of what was discussed.
FCC spokesman David Fiske says the agency believes its rulemaking procedures are completely open and transparent.
"There is a very detailed public record of everything in the process, including the ex parte meetings," said Fiske. "We want a wide variety of comments from everyone—including those from businesses. "This is what good regulatory agencies do."
Some critics charge that the ex parte process simply allows broadcasters and other industries the FCC regulates to conduct their meetings out of the public eye.
"Traditionally, these things have been done by the FCC without any sort of meaningful public involvement," said Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy" and research professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This is just par for the course with the FCC. They are much more interested in protecting business than looking out for the public."
Another critic of the FCC rulemaking procedure in general and the ex parte process in particular is Danny Schechter, executive director of Mediachannel.org, a media watchdog group.
"There is a complete lack of transparency in the rulemaking process at the FCC," said Schechter. "These issues get treated as just business issues, when they are vital to our democracy. When real money is involved, the work gets done in the dark of night."
Although the FCC has held only one official public hearing on the rule changes, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pointed out that he and Commissioner Michael Copps had held more than a dozen informal hearings all across the country on the issue in recent weeks.
"In addition to meeting with some broadcasters, Commissioner Copps and I traveled across the country and held a series of unprecedented hearings in which we've heard from hundreds and hundreds of citizens," said Adelstein. "Not one of these citizens stood up to say they want to see big media get even bigger. We're doing everything we can to protect those people we heard from and their interests ahead of the interests of corporations that seek to profit by using the public airwaves."
Copps says average citizens at the hearings have not had any trouble understanding the issue.
"The principles at stake are fundamental and go to the heart of our democracy," he said in a prepared statement. "In my book, every American is a stakeholder when the future of the media hangs in the balance."
FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin attended the most private sessions with broadcasters, 16 in all. Martin, a Republican, is considered to be the key swing vote on the commission. He met with the country's largest television broadcaster, Viacom, three times. He also met with NBC (three times), ABC (two times), Hearst (two times), News Corp., Gannett, Clear Channel Communications, Cox Enterprises, CumulusBroadcasting, and Radio One (one time).
In a prepared statement, Martin said he has an open door policy. An aide to Martin said he did not know how many times the commissioner had participated in ex parte meetings with private citizens about the proposed media ownership rules.
"I will meet with any individual or group that requests a meeting, to the extent my schedule can accommodate the request," said the statement.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican who has pushed hard to relax the media ownership rules and put the proposals on the June 2 agenda, participated in four such meetings.
On January 30, Powell and legal advisor Susan Eid met with News Corp.'s Murdoch and two other company officials.
On February 20, Powell and legal advisor Susan Eid met with Viacom's Karmazin and two other company executives.
On April 1, Powell, Eid and his chief of staff Marsha MacBride met with NBC President Robert Wright and other network brass. Commissioner Kevin Martin and Media Bureau Chief Kenneth Ferree, the chief architect of the proposed rule changes, also attended that session.
On May 1, Powell and MacBride met with Gannett President and CEO Doug McCorkindale and three other executives from the company.
Appearing on CNBC Wednesday evening, Chairman Powell said he believes the FCC is the second most heavily lobbied institution in the federal government, trailing only Congress.
"I do think that—that sometimes it gets out of hand," said Powell. "I often think that we need time to do our work rather than hear pitches."
He said the agency is like a mini-legislature.
"If we're just Congress lite, then I question what value we're really bringing," said Powell. "If it's all about bringing public pressure to the agency and they'll do whatever the will of that pressure is, I question what we're adding to the United States government."
Commissioner Adelstein, a Democrat, participated in eight meetings. Among the broadcasters he met with were Viacom, News Corp., ABC, Gannett, Hearst, Cumulus, Radio One and the National Association of Broadcasters.
Commissioner Copps, a Democrat, was at seven meetings. Among those he met with were Viacom, News Corp., NBC, Gannett, Cumulus and Radio One.
Commissioner Abernathy, a Republican, was at seven meetings. Among those she met with were Viacom, NBC, ABC, Gannett and the National Association of Broadcasters.
Some top advisors to the commissioners and the chairman met with broadcasters many times. At the top of the list was Catherine Bohigian, a legal advisor to Commissioner Martin, who met with broadcasters 19 times. Others included Powell's legal advisor Susan Eid (17); and Stacy Robinson, legal advisor to Commissioner Abernathy (15).
Ferree, the Media Bureau Chief and chief architect of the proposals, met with broadcasters 11 times.