I have direct knowledge of a part of the issue reported in the New York Times and Washington Post stories on Senator McCain published on February 21, 2008.
I was a lobbyist for one of the parties, WQED, a Pittsburgh public television station, which sought help from Senator John McCain with the FCC on its matter. The other two parties involved in this matter were Cornerstone Broadcasting and Paxson Broadcasting.
Bottom line: what was omitted from both the Times and the Post stories was that what I wanted Senator McCain to do, he refused to do. And he did so out of a concern of appearances of impropriety. That is a fact.
In the spring of 2000, I was quoted in the Washington Post stating that fact or something close to it when this story was first written - I believe shortly after Senator McCain had defeated then Governor Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire Primary.
I repeated that fact to a Washington Post reporter several weeks ago. I never heard from the New York Times, even though, as just stated, I was on-the-record in 2000 with the Post. Yet neither newspaper, for whatever reason, included that fact in either story.
I have no ax to grind on behalf of Senator McCain. I have a high regard for him and often say so when I do TV appearances to discuss the presidential campaign. I disagree with him on most issues - especially the Iraq War. I am known to be a pretty strong liberal Democrat. I do not plan on voting for Senator McCain for president.
I make this post only to set the record straight. Senator McCain did not include in his letter what we hoped he would.
Some brief background (forgive minor errors of memory - it's been more than eight years):
The issue on which Pittsburgh's WQED asked me for help, I believe, in the fall of 1999, was that it was in serious financial distress and, possibly to save its very existence, it wished to sell its second public TV station in Pittsburgh reserved for public television, WQEX, to Cornerstone. The latter was a Christian-content broadcaster. The plan was for Cornerstone to then sell its commercial station to Paxson Broadcasting, a commercial broadcaster.
Opponents of the transaction opposed the transaction because, among other reasons, they did not want to "de-reserve" the second public TV station, WQEX, which was a "reserved" and or dedicated channel for public TV, i.e., they did not want to reduce the total (and limited) number of stations in the U.S. that were "reserved" for public television. As a long-time supporter and fan of public TV, I was personally sensitive to this concern.
The group of lobbyists and lawyers for WQED/WQEX, Paxson and, I believe, Cornerstone (not sure about the latter) met to discuss strategy. I urged that the main reason the FCC should approve this transaction is to save a great public TV station in Pittsburgh. I proposed asking Senator McCain to write the FCC and at least point out the economic distress faced by WQED and that this transaction could help save them. It was natural to think of Senator McCain to write such a letter since he was then the Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and, thus, would be the obvious person to communicate this legitimate position to the FCC.
But I was informed by FCC experts in the room (I was not one of them) that the FCC's "ex parte" rule forbade a member of Congress from communicating with the FCC and from taking a position or advocating on the merits for any side during an ongoing proceeding. I thought that rule would not be violated if Senator McCain simply pointed out the fact of the financial distress faced by the public TV station, WQED, and then went on to state that he is not taking a position on the merits, one way or the other, as to whether the transaction should be approved.
The group agreed to ask Senator McCain to send such a letter.
I do not recall which of the lobbyists in the room was asked to approach Senator McCain's office to ask for a letter along the lines that I had proposed. I think there were several who volunteered.
I then learned that Senator McCain and his staff were not comfortable with mentioning the economic danger to WQED, even if Senator McCain went on to state in the letter that he took no position on the merits of the decision. I was told Senator McCain was only willing to send a letter with a "vanilla" status inquiry, together with a request that the matter be handled as expeditiously as possible (or words to that effect) - i.e., taking no position on the merits of approval or disapproval of the WQED/WQEX-Cornerstone-Paxson transactions whatsoever.
The letter that Senator McCain sent dated November 17, 1999 to then FCC Chairman Bill Kennard expressed "concern about the Commission's continuing failure to act on the pending applications for assignment of the licenses" [after two years], and went on to say: "This letter is not written to secure a favorable resolution for any party on any substantive issue pending before the Commission." Subsequently, on December 10, 1999, Senator McCain sent a copy of that letter to the four other commissioners, asking each Commissioner to advise him on whether they have already acted on the matter and then, stating in part: "The sole purpose of this request is to secure final action on a matter that has now been pending for over two years. I emphasize that my purpose is not to suggest in any way how you should vote - merely that you vote."
The final outcome of all this, ironically, that neither the Cornerstone nor the Paxson deal ever got closed. Cornerstone backed out because the FCC imposed too many conditions on the transaction, which Cornerstone believed discriminated against them as a religious organization.
Another fact not included in the Times's and Post's account: Mr. Paxson, the individual cited in the Times and the Post as engaging a lobbyist to help get his purchase of Cornerstone's channel approved as part of the three-way transaction, failed to get what he wanted because this deal did not close.
Opponents of the transaction from a Georgetown University legal clinic filed a complaint with the FCC alleging that McCain's letter violated the ex parte rules. The FCC investigated the matter and found no violation by Senator McCain. That fact was also omitted, for whatever reason, from both the Times and the Post story today.