Thus many of us weren't the least surprised to learn this week that the Powell Commission buried at least two taxpayer-funded studies that didn’t toe the official line that bigger media is better for us all.
The first study, completed in 2004 by the FCC's own researchers, found that on average locally owned broadcasters devoted 5.5 more minutes of local news per half-hour newscast than their consolidated counterparts. It concluded that network-owned and operated stations (belonging to the likes of Disney, General Electric, Viacom and News Corp) spent considerably less time covering the communities they're supposed to serve.
Local ownership is good news for local communities, according to the study. But this was bad news for Powell. The findings openly challenged his assertions that "commonly owned television stations are more likely to carry local news than other stations." Thus instructions came down from "senior managers" to destroy "every last piece" of the study.
The second study, which just came to light today, found that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to the drastic decline in the number of radio station owners while the actual number of commercial stations in the U.S. increased -- a strong indicator that a handful of companies were hoarding local radio airwaves.
This study, too, was buried during Powell's rocky tenure.
This evidence still would be gathering dust at the agency were it not for whistle-blowers who secreted copies of the spiked reports to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Boxer last week waved the findings before a wide-eyed Kevin Martin, Powell's successor as FCC chairman, during his senate re-confirmation hearings.
This was worse news for Chairman Martin.
The North Carolina Republican had been hand-picked by the Bush administration to clean up Powell's failed turn at the FCC, successfully rewrite media ownership rules and let powerful network owners expand their control over local news markets. Martin previously worked on the Bush-Cheney 2000 election team that fought bitterly to obstruct the vote recount in Florida. Martin's wife, Catherine, had been a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. He's a shrewd political animal who many feel will parlay GOP successes at the FCC into higher office.
But Powell's untidy FCC legacy may have stalled Martin's ambitions.
Martin was caught unusually off guard during the confirmation hearings when Senator Boxer demanded that he come clean on efforts to "deep six" the first study. Consumer groups and public advocates at Free Press, Consumers Union, Media Access Project and the Consumer Federation of America called on Martin to seek an immediate independent investigation "to determine the circumstances under which the public was denied access to this important, taxpayer-funded research." An Associated Press report on the cover-up ran in more than two dozen newspapers and trade publications.
The unfolding drama has been met with a flurry of denials from FCC chairmen present and past.
Martin wrote back to Boxer repeating over and again that he knew nothing of the study: "I was not Chairman at the time that this report was drafted. I had not seen -- nor was I aware of -- this draft report ... No one on my staff had seen this report nor were they aware of it. I am not aware of any other commissioners, past or present, who knew of the report."
Powell echoed Martin, telling NPR on Friday that he "never saw" the study. "Any suggestion that senior levels of the commission spiked that report, at least from my vantage point, didn't happen," he said.
While Powell scrambles to distance himself from the cover-up -- and Martin scrambles to distance himself from Powell -- the "vantage point" for the public has become disappointingly clear.
We know now that the leadership of a federal agency is bent on deleting evidence that challenges their beliefs -- placing political expediency before the public interest.
We know that this cover-up is part of a larger scheme to clear a path for large media companies to buy up more local news outlets.
And we know that unless the public gets more involved in holding them accountable, the FCC will fulfill the wishes of the administration and its corporate allies, gutting policies that curb media companies' plans to swallow up local markets.
The good news is that now the public has a chance to have its say.
Major media companies have lobbied Martin to erase restrictions on how many newspapers, television and radio stations they can own. They want him to rewrite rules so that such big national companies as Tribune could potentially own the major daily newspaper, eight radio stations and three television stations in a single town.
Martin wants to help these companies do just that. But the chairman – as a matter of procedure – must first seek public comment to any proposed rewrite of the rules. Earlier this summer Martin kick-started the latest effort to weaken FCC protections to local control of the media. The chairman pledged to hold a "half dozen" public hearings but has so far only committed to one, in Los Angeles on October 3.
He and the agency's Republican majority are carrying forward Powell's commitment to scrap any limits to local media monopolies, but they have to at least make a show of public accountability before handing over more local outlets.
More than 40 public and consumer advocacy groups, including Free Press, Common Cause, Consumers Union, National Council of Churches and the Newspapers Guild-CWA have formed the StopBigMedia.com coalition to make sure that the FCC puts on more than a show.
We have encouraged more than a hundred thousand American to make comments in the FCC public docket and hope to turn out thousands more at public hearing scheduled through the remainder of the year.
Before Chairman Martin decides we hope he will take a lesson from Powell's tin ear to popular concerns about consolidation. If Martin really wants to overcome the unsavory legacy of the Powell Commission, he must weigh all the evidence and put the public's needs first.