With only a week to go before comments are due in the FCC proceeding to determine whether or not to change the Multiple Ownership Rules (our summary of the issues on which the Commission sought comment can be found here), a controversy has arisen over a 2004 study concerning the effects of local ownership on news programming. During the confirmation hearing on Chairman Martin’s second term on the Commission, soon after the Chairman expressed his open mind about the outcome of the multiple ownership proceeding, California Senator Barbara Boxer produced a surprise. She produced a report written by FCC economists purporting to show that television stations that are locally owned air more local news programming. This report, though written in 2004, had never been released to the public.
The clear implication was that the Commission had tried to bury the report though as it contradicted FCC proposals to loosen ownership restrictions. According to a report in TV Newsday, the Chairman today sent a letter to Senator Boxer stating that neither he nor any of the other Commissioners knew of the existence of the report or any efforts to suppress its release. However, in another news report released today, a former FCC attorney said that senior managers at the Commission ordered "every last piece" of the report destroyed.
This issue will no doubt factor into the public debate about the multiple ownership proceeding. Already, consolidation opponents are featuring the story on their websites as evidence of FCC bias, and urging an FCC investigation of the hiding of the report. These sites are also urging their members to actively fight any further consolidation efforts.
Even before the flap about the report, the battle lines were being drawn. On Friday, the FCC announced that the first of a half dozen open hearings on ownership issues would be held in Los Angeles on October 3 (though at a so far undisclosed time and location). Even though this will be the first official FCC hearing since the release of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, there have been informal hearings sponsored by anti-consolidation forces, and featuring the Democratic Commissioners. See the report on a Milwaukee meeting here. These efforts to rally opposition to further consolidation will no doubt continue throughout the course of the proceeding.
The FCC had promised that it would be placing into the record of this Multiple Ownership proceeding a summary of its findings from its Localism proceeding conducted two years ago. That has not yet been done. With the localism report that will be coming at some point in the future, this week’s release of the controversial 2004 report, and the upcoming hearings, new evidence will be entered into the record for months to come, and parties who file comments next week will no doubt want the ability to comment further on whatever new evidence is introduced. So it seems likely that next week’s comments will be but the first of a series of comments, which may well drag a final decision in this proceeding out for years.