The broadcast industry has become one of Washington's most feared economic special interests, creating more and more ethical conflicts for news outlets. And too many journalists are playing right along.
By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.
When news executives decide to throw their political weight around, they have plenty of ways to do it, some subtle and some crude. Gloria Tristani got the crude treatment as she prepared for a 2002 Senate race in her home state of New Mexico.
Tristani was a member of the Federal Communications Commission, which was considering a plan to license hundreds of tiny, low-power radio stations across the country. The broadcast industry hated this, and its main lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, was threatening court action and other dire measures. Broadcasters were "taking off the gloves," the NAB's president warned.
As the low-power plan neared a vote at the FCC, Tristani started hearing from radio and TV people back home.
She told me that Jerry Danziger, vice chairman of Albuquerque's KOB-TV and a board member of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, tried to use her Senate race as leverage. She said he told her, "If you're coming back here to run for Congress, you'd better not vote for low power, because you won't get on a radio or TV station again."
Tristani said Danziger made the threat twice--once to a member of her staff and a second time to her personally. She voted for low power anyway. Broadcasters supported her opponent (the NAB gave him $10,000), and she lost the election. Tristani said she didn't know whether the dispute really did affect coverage, but "it was always in the back of my head."
Danziger says he doesn't recall making such a threat. He suggested I check with Paula Maes, head of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association. Maes confirms that the statement was made. But she says it "was a statement that was made by one broadcaster"--she refused to name him--"and the statement was prefaced by, 'This is my position, as an individual broadcaster. This is not the position of the New Mexico broadcasters.'"
Sen. Bob Dole received an even bolder threat in 1996 while running for president. Congress was considering a bill to give TV stations, free of charge, a large expanse of the digital broadcast spectrum, worth an estimated $70 billion. Dole, a Kansas Republican, called it "the giveaway of the century." He wanted stations to pay for this valuable resource.
The NAB and the 50 state broadcasters associations came out fighting. Hundreds of stations ran a public service ad claiming that Congress was about to pass "a TV tax" that would "destroy free TV."
While Dole was campaigning in Iowa he was handed a letter from Nick Evans, an NAB board member. Evans headed a chain of 11 stations in Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
After a few introductory pleasantries, the letter said:
"If over the next few days your position on spectrum has not changed and been made public, you will have lost my support. I will be forced to use our resources to tell the viewers in all of our markets of your plan to destroy free over-the-air television. I will be forced to tell the over 700 employees of our company of your plan and encourage their support of another Presidential candidate. I have spoken with many other broadcasters who feel the same as I do."
The threat apparently worked. Dole stopped talking about the spectrum giveaway, and the NAB's version of the bill passed. After the election, a Dole staffer gave a copy of Evans' letter to J.H. Snider of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, who published it in an academic paper.
The stations Evans ran have since been sold, but I phoned him at his home in Augusta, Georgia, and asked what he might have done against Dole, had it come to that. He said he could have used his stations "to report what we believed to be the facts, and sometimes those facts become positions on an issue."
He repeated the claim in his letter that he thought other broadcasters felt as he did. "I know that I had spoken with others and that others felt similar to what I was stating there. Whether or not they would have followed through was not my goal... I could only speak for myself." When asked what other broadcasters had thought of his letter, Evans said, "Most everybody I heard from was supportive."
Media lobbyists seldom bare their fangs quite so nakedly. They don't have to. "Their lobbying is so effective, they hardly have to flick an eyelash," says Patricia Schroeder, a former Colorado congresswoman.
"Members of Congress are completely and totally dependent on the media," says Joel Barkin, communications director for Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), "and you can't think that there's not a conflict of interest here when the head of Viacom [which owns CBS] is lobbying, saying loosen these regulations, and at the same time we're going to give you coverage. Whether they say it's a conflict of interest or not, it's impossible not to see that connection."
Gene Kimmelman, a former Senate aide who now heads the Washington office of Consumers Union, speaks of "a mystique of media power" in Washington. He says, "Congressmen often wonder, if they come out looking bad on TV, was that in retaliation for something?"
As an interest group, the media include not just professional associations like the NAB but also powerful companies like General Electric (which owns NBC), Viacom, Disney (which owns ABC) and News Corp. (which owns Fox). Their interests are so diverse as to touch on nearly every big issue newspeople cover--tax policy, health care, environmental regulation, insurance regulation, financial services regulation, labor law, equal employment opportunity rules, defense spending, global trade policy and even sports.
It's understandable that politicians would fear such concentrated power. But they might fear it just a little less if the very people who deliver the news for these companies were not so often involved in their lobbying and public relations.
The fact is, broadcast journalists are routinely found at industry conventions in places like Las Vegas, mingling and talking with government policymakers about broadcasters' legislative and regulatory concerns. Many journalists let themselves be displayed at dinners and awards ceremonies before mixed crowds of advertisers, media industry lobbyists, government regulators and lawmakers. Their professional associations throw dinners in honor of the very politicians they cover. And when a polished speaker is needed to bestow an award on some key member of Congress, a TV news personality sometimes steps up to do the honors. News reporters are occasionally even found lobbying shoulder to shoulder with their corporate brethren on Capitol Hill. They seem not to consider the damage this does to ethical standards honed over the decades by the news profession.
The message to policymakers is, of course, that these journalists are on board with the business side of the industry, that they understand the industry's economic interests and agree with its points of view.
For politicians to believe in the media's power to reward and punish--including its power to make good on threats such as the ones Dole and Tristani received--they must believe that the people who lobby them can also influence the news. And while many journalists deny this, there is growing evidence that this is the case. When newspeople join forces with lobbying groups, the impression is reinforced.
Last year, the Alaska Broadcasters Association inducted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) into its Hall of Fame. Stevens is important because if Republicans keep control of the Senate next year, he becomes chairman of the Commerce Committee, which handles most important media-related bills.
The Hall of Fame dinner was at an Anchorage hotel ballroom before a crowd that included journalists, politicians and businesspeople. It was a way of saying thank you to Stevens because, as the association put it, he "maintains a close working relationship" with broadcasters "and consistently supports legislation that protects the interests of the broadcasting industry. His close connection with the Federal Communications Commission has resulted in establishing Alaska Day at the FCC and in bringing FCC Chairman Michael Powell to Alaska."
John Tracy, a news director and anchor for KTUU-TV, was the evening's master of ceremonies. KTUU is the leading news station in Anchorage, and Tracy is a respected journalist there. He and his station have won prizes for news coverage, including an Edward R. Murrow Award in 1990 for a documentary on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
When I asked Tracy if he thought it was a breach of ethics for Alaska's most visible newsperson to preside at a dinner for its most powerful politician, he said no, because Walter Cronkite had also been honored that evening. Tracy said he didn't even know in advance that Stevens would be getting an award. "I was so focused on the Walter Cronkite deal," he said, "and it's quite possible they said we're going to give Ted something too."
All the state associations work cooperatively on most issues with the NAB, which is considered the most powerful of all media lobbying groups. Meredith McGehee, who heads the Alliance for Better Campaigns, says when she brings up an issue with congressional staffers, "They'll say, 'How does the NAB stand on this?' And if the NAB is against it, they'll say, 'You haven't got a chance.'"
The NAB is huge. It reported total net assets of $66.7 million in 2003. It owns its own building, an imposing edifice on N Street in downtown Washington. It takes in more than $50 million a year from membership dues, conventions, seminars, sales of merchandise and other activities, and its annual payroll exceeds $12.5 million, which includes the $995,000 salary it paid to its top executive, Edward O. Fritts, according to public records. Its travel budget exceeds $1 million a year. It reported spending $3.7 million on lobbying in 2003. And over the past four years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it has given more than $2.2 million to candidates for federal office, nearly two-thirds of that to Republicans.
Its largesse buys the NAB extraordinary access. After George W. Bush's election, Fritts served on Bush's FCC transition team, which recommended appointments to the very agency Fritts' organization lobbies on a daily basis. (Fritts declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Last year the Center for Public Integrity reported on the free trips and entertainment lavished on FCC officials by industries that the agency regulates. The biggest single sponsor of those trips, over an eight-year period, was the NAB, which spent $191,472 to pay for 206 trips to Las Vegas and elsewhere for FCC commissioners and staff members. After some senators pressured the FCC to stop accepting these freebie trips, their frequency declined. But the center reported in April that FCC employees were still taking trips paid for by the NAB and various state broadcasters associations.
Like virtually all big lobbying operations, the NAB recruits people from Washington's familiar and often-criticized "revolving door." Its latest major hire, Marsha MacBride, was chief of staff to the chairman of the FCC before joining the NAB last year as its head of legal and regulatory affairs. Normally, federal law requires a one-year cooling-off period before ranking public employees can lobby their old agencies, but MacBride made the transition in just a few months, due to a loophole that Congress is now trying to close.
The archives of Investigative Reporters and Editors are rich with stories about all of the above practices, as conducted by the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the defense industry and others. Phrases like "legal corruption" turn up in the headlines of these stories. But unlike other big influence-peddling groups in Washington, the broadcasting lobby seems relatively immune to such exposure by the media. Even if they cared to report on it, many newspeople would have a conflict of interest, because they have worked in cooperation with that lobby.
For instance, the NAB holds a Service to America symposium each year in Washington. The trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable, which is a sponsor of that event, has described its purpose as follows: "The annual event draws top industry executives, but it is really meant for the policymakers who attend and sometimes participate in the programs." The magazine called it "a showy way to display NAB's power and public interest." In other words, it's a PR event by a major lobbying organization.
NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory gave a keynote luncheon address this year, and Deborah Norville of MSNBC was master of ceremonies at a black-tie awards dinner that evening, where a humanitarian award was given to Nancy Goodman Brinker, one of the elite Bush campaign contributors known as "pioneers." This particular award always seems to go to someone political, and the NAB always finds a journalist to preside over the ceremony. Last year, when Laura Bush got the award, the emcee was Bob Schieffer of CBS. Others on the program that year were U.S. Reps. Mark Foley and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Florida Republicans. The year before that, when the award went to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cokie Roberts of ABC presided, sharing the stage with several politicians besides Giuliani, including Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security.
Another power display--far more extravagant--is the NAB's annual spring convention and electronic media exhibition. This weeklong event, which can barely be contained within the huge Las Vegas Convention Center, is billed as the world's largest conference and exhibition for electronic media. It drew some 97,000 people this year. The convention has showcased such news celebrities as Barbara Walters, Jeff Greenfield, Larry King and Katie Couric.
Sam Donaldson of ABC News has appeared for the past four years, sharing a stage with FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Donaldson's annual interview of Powell has become one of the convention's most popular sessions. It was held this year in a cavernous auditorium and banquet hall, where Eddie Fritts, the NAB president and CEO, introduced Donaldson and Powell to an overflow crowd.
Donaldson proved to be well versed in the industry's regulatory issues. He began with perhaps the NAB's hottest concern at that moment: indecency. After Janet Jackson's right nipple made its television debut at the Super Bowl halftime show, a furor had arisen in Washington over the raunchiness of much radio and television content. Pressured by Congress to act, the FCC had proposed a $755,000 fine against the nation's largest radio chain, Clear Channel Communications, for the on-air antics of one of its more extreme shock jocks. The NAB was trying to disarm this issue by arguing that the industry could police itself if only the government would back off.
Donaldson asked Powell why the FCC had toughened its enforcement this year. Powell said it was because of an increase in public complaints, from only 14,000 in 2002 to nearly 540,000 in just the first few months of 2004.
Donaldson: "Are you telling me you're just bowing to public pressure?"
Powell: "No, we're being responsive to public concern, which is the way the indecency statute is written."
Donaldson: "Oh my. I must beg to suggest that, in one case, of Clear Channel, there were 21 violations in one instance since 2001. You didn't move until all of a sudden you got really tough with a huge fine. And where were you all this time?"
Powell: "Oh, I think that's not an accurate reflection of the facts. We have waded through indecency cases for the last four years, and indeed I've been on the commission for seven years and in a commission led by a previous administration we dealt with indecency complaints."
Donaldson: "With fines of that size?"
Powell: "Not with fines of that size..."
Donaldson: "Mel Karmazin [the head of Viacom] wants the commission to define, legally--and lawyers out there will understand this--where the line is. I mean, how can you fine someone in an ex post facto sense when they've done something that they don't have a guidepost to say is wrong?"
Powell: "I think this argument is largely a red herring." He compared the matter with sentencing guidelines in the courts. Judges should have leeway, and so should the FCC, he said.
Donaldson: "Well, it sounds to me like you're saying to everyone here, 'You're on your own. Good luck. We'll take a look at what you do, if there are public complaints, and you may get fined for it, or not, depending on our judgment at that time.'"
The interview went on in that vein, with Donaldson raising some of the industry's principal lobbying concerns and trying, with varying success, to pin Powell down about future FCC policies. The newsman was playing the same role everyone had seen him play on TV. Only, instead of asking sharp questions about the salient issues of the day, he was grilling a federal regulator about the narrower issues affecting what Donaldson called "our industry." Some of his questions centered on how the FCC might help broadcasters in their competitive struggles with their archrivals, the cable and satellite industries. He referred several times to Fritts, who was observing from off-stage. "Eddie, where are you?" he joked.
At one point he quoted from an emotional speech Fritts had made the day before, in which the NAB leader had urged government regulators to force cable companies to carry all the signals of broadcast stations. As Fritts put it, "let the free broadcast signals flow." When Powell gave a somewhat vague response about that, Donaldson demanded: "Is that a 'no'?"
Powell said: "The irony of what you're saying is, let's let it freely flow by increasing regulation to make sure."
Donaldson then announced: "That's a 'no,' Eddie."
If there was a difference between special-interest lobbying and what Donaldson was doing, it was not obvious.
A few hours after the Donaldson-Powell interview, the other four FCC commissioners appeared in what the convention's program of events called "a rousing discussion from these regulatory heavyweights." It was led by John Cochran, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News. While not as aggressive as Donaldson, Cochran had a grasp of the regulatory issues and framed most of his questions from an industry point of view.
Besides the Donaldson and Cochran interviews, an NAB board member conducted a question-and-answer session at this year's convention with several members of Congress, all from key committees. Another NAB lobbyist held a Q-and-A with five high-ranking FCC staffers. These lobbyists covered the same sorts of regulatory issues the two newsmen had. Neither was as openly confrontational as Donaldson.
The NAB denies that what Donaldson and Cochran did was in any way akin to lobbying, or that such behavior compromised them in any way. "I think Sam Donaldson's record as a journalist speaks for itself," says Dennis Wharton, the NAB's senior vice president for corporate communications. "He's proven over the years that he's no lackey for anybody."
Cochran says he considered his session with the FCC commissioners "a journalistic exercise" rather than part of the NAB's political advocacy. He says he suspects that the NAB uses newspeople like himself and Donaldson for these sessions because "we're unbiased."
"I thought it was just almost like a news program," he says, adding that he'd hoped C-SPAN might cover it. "I thought it would be good for the public to see it."
Donaldson did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Whatever you call them, these sessions do more than just enliven the proceedings. They are an important part of the advocacy process, the ongoing effort to get policymakers to see things as the broadcasters see them. And to make them realize how powerful broadcasters are, and how politically well organized. And, by implication, how unwise it might be to cross them.
The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, an educational arm of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, gives a First Amendment Leadership Award each year to someone "who has demonstrated a lifetime dedication to freedom of the press." This year's award went to Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). It was presented by Linda Douglass of ABC News.
The dinner was at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, with a guest list that included lobbyists, government people, broadcast executives and some big-name TV journalists, all in tuxes and formal dresses. Waiters floated amid a sea of white tablecloths, making sure no wine glass went empty.
When it came time to honor the senators, the evening's master of ceremonies, Bill Plante, CBS' White House correspondent, introduced Douglass, ABC's chief Capitol Hill correspondent. Both Plante and Douglass have interviewed Leahy and Grassley many times. The senators are part of Douglass' regular beat, as she cheerfully acknowledged from the podium.
"In the interest of full disclosure," she announced, "I have to confess that these are two of my favorite senators. Both are sometimes lovable, sometimes ornery. Both are stubborn enough to drive up the blood pressure of the other senators, yet they are charming enough that it's hard to get mad at them."
After reviewing the senators' contributions to the public's right to know, Douglass introduced a video, which ran on two large screens on either side of the stage. It had been put together by an ABC News crew in the style of a TV news report, although it was far more glowing than most news reports. With minimal editing, either senator could have turned it into a campaign ad.
In her voiceover, Douglass declared that "Charles Grassley may be a plain-spoken Iowa farmer with Midwestern good manners, but government agencies know not to cross him."
And: "Vermont's Patrick Leahy has printer's ink in his blood. His dad owned a small printing shop in Vermont."
Interspersed were shots of Grassley and Leahy going about their daily work or speaking into the camera about the importance of government transparency. Grassley, for instance, said: "I'm never going to give up if there's something wrong. I believe that this is the people's government..."
A few days later, in a phone interview, I asked Douglass about the propriety of bestowing awards and public flattery on politicians she covers. She responded with a spirited defense. She'd had nothing to do with choosing the award recipients, she said; she'd simply gotten a call from RTNDA asking her to make the presentation. She didn't think this crossed an ethical line. "Both of these senators have a long history of being praised by journalists" for their defense of the First Amendment, she said.
She thought there might be an ethical problem "if you are in a group that is regulated by these two senators, or if you have something to gain from honoring them... But this is a foundation that gives scholarships to students."
She suggested I ask the senators themselves if they thought her presentation of the award would inhibit her in how she covered them. I said I was more interested in what a potential campaign opponent might think, seeing those incumbents so generously praised at a public dinner by a large group of journalists. Especially so, considering that Douglass' employer, Disney, has made campaign contributions to Grassley--a total of $10,000 since February 2002, according to public records. (Plante's employer, Viacom, is also a Grassley campaign contributor.)
"I have no idea what Disney does politically. I have absolutely no awareness of Disney's contributions," Douglass said. "I think your question to me is, 'Have I ever supported these guys?' and the answer is no."
RTNDA President Barbara Cochran also sees nothing inappropriate about Douglass' role at the dinner. Asked why the organization chose a reporter who covers the senators to give them an award, she said, "They were senators whom she knew; it seems like a logical person to turn to."
And, says Cochran, the foundation that gives the award does no lobbying itself, although RTNDA (which effectively runs the foundation) does lobby Congress on First Amendment issues. Cochran says that the awards to Grassley and Leahy do not constitute excessive coziness with subjects of news coverage, because RTNDA and RTNDF do not cover or publish news.
For other perspectives, I called the Poynter Institute, which emphasizes ethics in all of its journalistic training courses. Aly Col�n, who is an ethics group leader there, says he cannot recall a specific case of a reporter giving an award to someone he or she covered. "I think it has some real problems attached to it, problems of how people will perceive the impartiality of coverage of these two senators by the individuals and the group that gave them the award."
Al Tompkins, also of Poynter, who once coauthored an ethics workbook for RTNDA, says, "There's no question it would be difficult for the public to understand why we're being so chummy with the people we cover."
Vicki Gowler, editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, chairs the American Society of Newspaper Editors' committee on ethics and values. Without passing judgment on the specific case, with which she was unfamiliar, she says having a Capitol Hill reporter give awards to two senators "feels wrong."
Scott Bosley, ASNE's executive director, says: "We've never given an award to anyone in government, nor have I detected any appetite to do so."
Asked if he could imagine his organization giving an award to a politician, Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said, "I really can't."
"For most of our members," he said, "I think it would be kind of amazing for one of them to give an award to a public official...because we encourage people to be watchdogs."
After some searching, I found a disinterested party who said he felt comfortable with what RTNDA had done. He's Frank Gibson, political editor of Nashville's Tennessean and a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He said he could recall SPJ giving awards to at least two public officials--one a member of the Texas Supreme Court and the other William J. Brennan Jr., the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.
When I described the Grassley-Leahy situation and asked his opinion, Gibson said, "I do not see any ethical breach in that at all." He said the RTNDA, as an organization, doesn't cover Congress, although some of its members do. And, he said, the award was probably approved by a board or committee, "and probably nobody on that body has ever met those senators."
However one feels about them, awards to politicians are popular in the broadcasting business. This year, the New Jersey Broadcasters Association named Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) its Citizen of the Year and gave him a gold-and-onyx globe inscribed with his name. The association has given the same award for the past 10 years, always to a federal officeholder from the Garden State.
In Illinois, broadcasters in recent years have given Distinguished Service Awards to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Rep. John Shimkus, both Illinois Republicans. Hastert has played a key role in blocking congressional efforts to limit the concentration of media ownership, and Shimkus is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees telecommunications and media issues.
Iowa broadcasters inducted Sen. Grassley into their Hall of Fame last year, praising him and his wife in a press release for the way they "unselfishly volunteer their time to appear on Iowa radio and television stations in a number of public service announcements."
And this year the NAB inaugurated what it called a "legislative leadership award," to be given each year to an individual "who demonstrates unusual dedication to improving broadcasters' relationship to the federal government." Sen. Stevens, honored earlier by Alaska broadcasters, got this award as well.
Asked if he considered it less of a problem for an organization like the NAB, which represents the media's business side, to give awards to politicians, Al Tompkins said: "I don't really know that it matters much. One of the tenets of journalism is to be independent. Anything that clouds that independence only reinforces and raises questions in the public's mind."
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Clarification: In this story, we failed to make clear that, although the National Association of Broadcasters represents radio and television stations throughout the United States, the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) do not belong to the NAB. They have their own lobbying operations, which do not always agree with the NAB on issues affecting the broadcast industry. ###