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Missing FCC Study Sparks Inquiry

On the eve of his renomination hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin vowed to investigate allegations that a staff study on local TV-station ownership was intentionally destroyed. Deregulation critic Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) produced a copy of an FCC “working paper” from June 2004 that concluded that TV stations do significantly more local news than network-owned or “non-locally” owned stations, which “may have policy indications for both Congress and the FCC.”

Who suppressed this? she asked him. Martin said that neither he nor anyone on his staff had seen the paper. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell says he has “never seen the report, did not know about it, and never ordered anything destroyed,” according to a statement relayed by his personal assistant.

Martin later said the study was relevant to proceedings on localism and ownership and that it has now been made part of those. Boxer has asked for an Inspector General investigation; Martin’s office is considering it.

A former FCC lawyer tells B&C that FCC officials in 2004 ordered the study destroyed. Adam Candeub was a staff-level attorney with the Media Bureau; he was reviewing the study not as part of his job but because he was friends with the authors. The study, he says, was “common bureau discussion” then.

“Exactly who stopped it dead in its tracks, I don’t know,” says Candeub, but word came down that “we have to end the study. They want us to collect copies and destroy them.”

Boxer complained that, after three years, the FCC had still not completed a proceeding on local ownership. The study was part of that proceeding, says Candeub, identifying the authors as Keith Brown and Peter Alexander. The copy of the report obtained by B&C did not identify the authors, although both are cited on an FCC Web page listing media-ownership studies and drafts between 2002 and 2005; the study at issue was not listed.

The localism proceeding was launched by Michael Powell as part of his effort to pass deregulatory media-ownership rules. Martin said to Boxer that, when the report was prepared, Powell, not he, was chairman. The study says that stations provide almost 5½ minutes more local news per half-hour.

Before the hearing, Martin was endorsed by the National Association of Broadcasters for a second term. Despite tensions with the FCC over indecency, NAB President David Rehr “strongly recommended” Martin in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, applauding his “balanced approach” to regulatory issues.

For many, the hassle of Martin’s indecency-enforcement push is trumped by his support for other key issues, including digital multicast must-carry and ownership deregulation. While they won’t say so on record, a number of broadcasters have indicated that there is little upside to hammering the commission on indecency if it makes the chairman less willing or able to support them on other issues.

Still, Martin’s message on both multicast and ownership was not encouraging to broadcasters. He told the committee that he did not plan to bring the multicast issue up for vote again soon. On ownership, he said, although he voted to approve the FCC’s deregulatory 2003 rule rewrite, that didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned about media concentration.

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