Corporate Lobbyists' Influence at FCC Deepens

Article excerpt

FEATURES

As part of the mind-numbing alphabet soup of Beltway agencies, the Federal Communications Commission rarely receives much attention from the mainstream press. Various trade publications - Communications Daily, Broadcasting and Cable - do a fine job of tracking the FCC's arcane work, but they're geared toward a narrow audience of corporate strategists and hardcore policy works. To Joe Q. Public, the FCC is still best known for harassing George Carlin over his infamous "Seven Dirty Words" routine. Beyond that, the commission is pretty much a mystery.

But the Information Age has converted the once-moribund FCC into a bureaucratic powerhouse. The commission oversees an infrastructure of airwaves, telephone lines, and cable conduits that's the backbone of a $950 billion-a-year industry. And as the financial stakes have risen, the private-sector lobbyists have become increasingly adept at peddling their pro-business agenda to the FCC. But at what cost to the public, whose interests the FCC is theoretically charged with protecting?

That was the key question I hoped to address in my cover story for Mother Jones, which hit newsstands in September. The reporting, however, dates back to the early spring, when I first took note of the meteoric ascent of Michael K. Powell, the FCC's 38-year-old chairman. Colin's son and an ex-Army officer himself, the junior Powell was elevated to the FCC's chairmanship last January, and he immediately made clear his deregulatory bent. Powell indicated that he would be no great fan of using the FCC's authority to nix mega-mergers; he was quoted as calling the public-interest standard as "about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency."

I was tempted to focus my reporting solely on Powell, but the ever-wise Monika Bauerlein, Mother Jones's features editor, had a more farsighted plan - why not investigate how corporate lobbyists have led the Powell-guided FCC to abandon its public-interest mission? It was an ambitious assignment, especially given the magazine's five-week time frame. But what investigative reporter worth his or her salt doesn't crave a challenge? I bit.

Strange discrepancy

There were few leads to work with, save for the Center for Public Integrity's indispensable report "Off the Record," a primer on Big Media's political influence. CPI had sifted through FCC travel documents and found a disturbing pattern of industry-paid junkets. I made an inquiry with CPI's research team, which informed me that all FCC disclosure documents - travel statements, legal proceedings, meeting agendas - are warehoused at the agency's southwest Washington headquarters, affectionately dubbed the Portals. The documents were a mess, I was warned, but at least the commission had a good reputation for transparency - FOIA requests were not required to inspect the FCC's filings.

It was a good place to start, and Mother Jones dispatched an industrious young reporter, Michael Scherer, to the Portals on a massive photocopying mission - anything and everything from the past year was to be copied. When I met him in New York, he passed along a duffel bag filled with thousands upon thousands of FCC documents, loosely organized by type - travel statements in one bundle, ex parte minutes in another.

All set. Time to start digging.

The FCC's ethics office does not summarize its disclosure forms, which meant hours upon hours of scribbling numbers in steno books, trying to add up the outlays. Scherer and I eventually concluded that industry expenditures on FCC travel had increased by more than 60 percent in the past six months, a telltale rise that illustrates the private sector's mounting influence over the agency. We also were taken aback by the exotic nature of many corporate-- paid junkets - for every visit to Peoria or Yuma, there seemed to be a more lavish trip to Paris or Sao Paolo on the books.

But I was most intrigued by the meeting dockets, which list the day-to-day appointments of the FCC's commissioners. …