When the government decided to take a hard look at how well broadcasters were serving their communities, two economists at the Federal Communications Commission got a research idea: They would look at whether locally owned TV stations produced more local news than stations owned by companies based outside the area.
They found that local ownership resulted in more local news coverage. They also realized they had turned up what one of the researchers, economist Keith Brown, called “inconvenient facts.” The findings were at odds with what their agency, under heavy lobbying from the broadcast industry, had endorsed.
The months-long study was spiked by the agency with “no plausible explanation,” Brown says. He suspects it was because the conclusions were at odds with the shared position of the FCC and the broadcast industry: that media ownership rules were too restrictive and should be loosened.
Three years after Brown and Alexander did their work, a copy of the study surfaced, sparking controversy. Its apparent suppression, and the alleged deep-sixing of a second research study, have prompted an investigation by the FCC’s inspector general.
While that review is not yet complete, interviews with past and present employees of the FCC by The Associated Press reinforce Brown’s account. Economic research reports were at times altered to reflect a more favorable view of lifting ownership caps, and at least in some cases they were spiked altogether, they said.
Moreover, there are new concerns that an FCC management directive, issued shortly after the first television news report made headlines last fall, has had a chilling effect on research.
The underlying issue — how many newspapers, TV and radio stations a media conglomerate may own in a single market — has yet to be decided. A federal court ordered the agency to take a fresh look at media ownership rules, a process that could stretch on for another year.
Brown and Alexander’s research project, begun in late 2003, was meant to assist the agency’s Localism Task Force, created by then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell. “Localism” is one of the three pillars of the commission’s rules governing media ownership, along with “diversity” and “competition.”
Powell created the task force after the FCC voted 3-2 in June 2003 to ease the ownership rules, bringing a backlash from Capitol Hill and elsewhere. The decision also drew a court challenge.
For the research project, the two Ph.D. economists holed up in their offices for two months and reviewed 10,500 clips from local news programs broadcast in 20 markets.