FCC Launches Payola Investigation

Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell has told the Enforcement Bureau to open a two-front investigation into possible payola.

The move followed complaints from Congress, activists and others over conservative radio and TV commentator Armstrong Williams' admission that he took $240,000 from the Bush administration to flack for its No Child Left Behind" program.

Powell also cited Entercom's WKSE(FM) Niagra Falls as the target of a separate investigation into possible violations of disclosure and sponsorship identification  rules in connection with broadcast programming.

On Thursday, commissioner Jonathan Adelstein had asked the bureau to investigate the payola charges, saying the practice was alive, well and growing.

Anti- Big Media Activist had also sent Powell an online petition with over 12,000 signatures calling for an investigation into this and other instances of administration pay-for-promo policies.

Earlier this week, a citizens’ watchdog group filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 22 federal agencies seeking contracts with public-relations firms that might have set up similar arrangements.

In light of conservative journalist and pundit Armstrong Williams' concession that he received $240,000 from the Department of Education through a contract with Ketchum Public Relations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Tuesday filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to 22 government agencies, including all cabinet agencies.

“How extensively has the administration used propaganda to shore up its controversial policies?” asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington a non-profit group dedicated to holding public officials to high standards of behavior.

Over on Capitol Hill, George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House education committee, late last week called for an investigation into whether the deal was illegal as well as unethical. He also argued that it was just the latest in a string of administration attempts to influence the media.

He pointed out that in May, the GAO found that the Department of Health and Human Services had illegally used video news releases to promote its Medicare policy. In addition, the GAO Thursday found that the Office of Drug Control Policy had used similar VNRs to promote an anti-drug use message.

ONDCP also crew criticism several years ago when it paid programmers to insert anti-drug messages into the plots of entertainment shows. That relationship was not disclosed either.

Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have called on the President  to "stop the alarming use of illegal covert propaganda to promote government policy."

The White House did not return a B&C phone call for comment on the charges.