THE JANUARY 6, 2000, New York Times devoted the center of its front page to Stephen Labaton's two-column report on Senator John McCain's aggressive involvement in an issue before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that would benefit one of his financial backers, Lowell Paxson. Paxson is chairman and controlling owner of Paxson Communications, which has the largest group of broadcast television stations in the United States. Republican presidential candidate McCain heads the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC.
The Times article and an earlier report by Walter Robinson in The Boston Globe are getting lots of other media pickup because they reveal that McCain, a loud advocate of campaign finance reform, is willing to do the bidding of his own deep-pocketed contributors.
"The McCain angle is getting all the attention," says Jerry Starr, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University and director of the newly-formed Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. Starr is a long-time public interest advocate who has been dealing with this story during a many-year-long public broadcasting battle in his hometown of Pittsburgh. As he puts it, "There is a media scandal here that is at least as important as the political scandal."
In an interview, Starr expressed fears that, by concentrating on one well-known personality, the media is missing the real guts of the story: a classic conflict between the public interest and commercial interests. "What the story is about," he says, "is the extent to which big money controls media and the extent to which the media are regarded as property, rather than as a resource to serve the public. It is about the difficulty community groups face representing the public interest in the political process due to the corruption of big money. And finally, it's about the need to reform the governance of public broadcasting."
These issues have been buried in the stories about McCain, in part because they are complicated and appear to only deal with a local situation. The core of the story is a swap-and-sale deal in which Pittsburgh public broadcaster WQED would trade affiliated station WQEX (Channel 16) to Cornerstone TeleVision, a religious broadcaster that operates Channel 40, a commercially licensed station. WQED could then turn around and sell its new acquisition to Paxson Communications (32 percent owned by NBC) for $35 million. The complicated plan was developed after the 1996 FCC ruling that WQEX could not be "dereserved" -- commercialized -- and thus sold to a commercial broadcaster.
PAX TV, Paxson's broadcast network, is an ideologically conservative network that currently owns another previously noncommerical station, New York's Channel 31, formerly WNYC. Both WNYC and WQEX had been known for community-oriented shows, independent journalism, and locally-produced programming.
For years, Jerry Starr has fought for more public involvement in public television at the local level. He ran the QED Accountability Project, also known as the Save Pittsburgh Public Television Campaign, a coalition of activists, community groups and trade unionists. That campaign presented the FCC with up to 40,000 letters and petition signatures, and declarations and resolutions from labor and public-interest groups representing hundreds of thousands more, all voicing opposition to the deal. The coalition argued that the plan would deprive the community of a public station known for alternative programming and give more power to right-wing broadcasters.
But George Miles, a veteran public television executive and the CEO of WQED, sees this story very differently. "I don't believe there is a story here," he says. "A lot of congressmen urged the FCC to act, but they have sat on this for two and a half years. McCain didn't do anything wrong. I couldn't plan for two-and-a-half years. I couldn't hold on to people because of the uncertainty. The real story is the bureaucracy in Washington that sat on this decision and did nothing about it. You can't run a station or a business under those conditions."
In order to sell off its station, Pittsburgh's PBS outlet needed FCC approval. Its petitions have been under consideration for years because of complex issues, including the suitability of an evangelical station as an educational broadcaster. McCain wrote to the commission, urging them to expedite their decision on the matter. The chairman of the FCC, William Kennard, called McCain's personal involvement in the regulatory matter "highly unusual," even before it was known that the senator took money from Paxson executives and lobbyists, as well as rides on the Paxson corporate jet. According to Starr, a senior journalist who monitors the FCC said it was the most aggressive outside intervention he had ever seen. Paxson told The New York Times, "I'm a political person. Why? Because I happen to be in a business that politics is very heavily involved in."
Another controversy within the controversy is the role of FCC Commissioner Susan Ness, just reappointed to the Federal Commission by President Clinton but not yet confirmed by Senator McCain's committee. Ness, a Democrat, sided with Republicans to approve the swap and sale. "Did she do it for political reasons, to curry favor with McCain? We don't know," says Starr. Ness and the commission have been the target of intensive lobbying by the firm retained by WQED and Paxson, Washington lobbyists Patton Boggs. Commissioner Ness has denied any improprieties, claiming that her decision was made entirely on legal grounds.
A number of commentators have suggested that WQED's decision to sell WQEX was prompted by a financial scandal and mounting $14 million debt at the station going back into the early '90s. Some of the details of that scandal, involving accusations of a top-heavy management structure with high executive salaries, cushy perks including luxury cars and foreign trips, shady accounting practices, and allegations of embezzlement, were reported by The Wall Street Journal. "But even [the Journal] didn't tell the whole story," says Starr. While the local Pittsburgh press did cover the story, they did no investigative reporting on it at all, according to Starr. Late last month the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carried an editorial attack on Starr alleging that his charges about McCain and other broadcasting concerns were exaggerated. The paper did print a long letter from him challenging what he called their distorted and unsubstantiated charges.
On January 7, the Wall Street Journal devoted its lead editorial to "The 'McCain Scandal,' " arguing that "the real scandal is that Uncle Sam is spending billions of dollars to give unelected bureaucrats power." It blasted Jerry Starr, implying that he was trying to shake down the system politically in order to win "the potentially lucrative" station license for himself and his political cronies. This was a reference to one tactic in the campaign to save the WQEX, by mounting a bid for a community board to take over the non-commercial station. That effort failed. The Journal did not reference any of its own earlier investigative reports on internal PBS problems in Pittsburgh (perhaps because of the well-known gulf at the Journal between its ultra conservative editorial page and the news sections.) Starr was shocked by the Journal editorial, pointing to many errors and characterizing it as a "pack of lies." "They never called me," he says.
When you look deeply at this conflict, says Starr, you will find the involvement of many high-powered members of the Pittsburgh elite who are, in turn, connected to many local and national corporations. He charges that they used the public station for years as a private playground. He shared with us a detailed history of self-serving behavior by public broadcasting executives, which he says received little critical coverage by the press. His own detailed account of the community campaign and corruption in public broadcasting will appear in his new book, Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting, available this spring from Beacon Press.
This story is likely to continue to generate attention because of Senator McCain's prominence and the attention given to presidential politics. Perhaps because of the controversy, Lowell Paxson just canceled his upcoming fundraiser in Miami to benefit McCain. But will the media scratch deeper to examine the background role of media companies themselves? Will the implications of the PBS angle surface or be explained? Stay tuned.