FCC Report Says Media Consolidation Harms News Coverage - FCC Then Orders Report Destroyed

The Federal Communications Commission ordered its staff to destroy all copies of a draft study that suggested greater concentration of media ownership would hurt local TV news coverage, according to a story by the AP's John Dunbar.

Former FCC attorney Adam Candeub, now a law professor at Michigan State University, said senior managers at the agency ordered that "every last piece" of the report be destroyed. "The whole project was just stopped -- end of discussion," he said.

The FCC staff analysis showed local ownership of television stations adds almost five and one-half minutes of total news to broadcasts and more than three minutes of "on-location" news. The conclusion is at odds with FCC arguments made when it voted in 2003 to increase the number of television stations a company could own in a single market. It was part of a broader decision liberalizing ownership rules.

The research undercut then-Chairman Michael K. Powell's ideological crusade to loosen and eliminate media ownership limits, which would have allowed large national congloms to buy up even more local media. At that time the report was written, the FCC was publicly proclaiming the evidence showed that "commonly owned television stations are more likely to carry local news than other stations" - a conclusion refuted by the FCC's own research, which it then destroyed.

The report, written by Keith Brown and Peter Alexander, two economists in the FCC's Media Bureau, analyzed a database of 4,078 individual news stories broadcast in 1998. Both have written extensively on media and telecommunications policy. According to one respected outside researcher who saw the report before it was destroyed, it was "extremely well done. It should have helped to inform policy."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. made the report public at the Tuesday confirmation hearing of new FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, after having received it "indirectly from someone within the FCC who believed the information should be made public," according to a Boxer spokeswoman. Martin said he was not aware of the study. In a follow-up letter to Martin, Boxer asked whether the report was "shelved because the outcome was not to the liking of some of the commissioners and/or any outside powerful interests?"

Good question, Senator. Boxer's office said if she does not receive adequate answers to her questions, she will push for an investigation by the FCC inspector general.

This is a body blow to the FCC and its renewed drive, under Martin, to try again to loosen those crucial ownership limits that promote local news coverage. See my earlier posts on media concentration here. And if you're outraged, as I hope you are, send a comment to the FCC, here.