WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) is getting a lot of attention this week for the help he gave Paxson Communications in the purchase of a public TV station, but Paxson is just one of several entertainment industry companies, including Echostar and Tribune Broadcasting, that have benefited from the Commerce Committee chairman’s help over the years.
Just two months ago, McCain’s staff was working hard on behalf of Echostar, which wanted legislation that would allow the satcaster to offer local broadcast stations. Even before that bill became law, Echostar’s CEO Charlie Ergen showed his appreciation for McCain’s aid by hosting a fundraiser for the candidate.
And the big four networks have a friend in McCain, who supports their position that the cap on the number of stations they may own under FCC rules should be lifted, or eliminated entirely.
The FCC gets thousands of letters each year from members of Congress who are trying to help constituents. But McCain has run in to trouble because he pushed for a speedy vote by the agency at a critical time for Paxson; the situation involved a station controlled by pubcaster WQED in Pittsburgh. If the agency failed to take action by the Dec. 31, the deal would have fallen through. Under pressure from McCain the FCC voted to approve the deal 3-2.
The issue has been especially troubling for McCain’s campaign because the candidate has complained bitterly about the influence of special interests in Washington. Yet it turns out that McCain wrote the letter on behalf of Paxson after riding in the company’s corporate jet. Because of the sudden attention, McCain canceled a fundraiser, scheduled for this weekend, that was to be hosted by Paxson topper Lowell Paxson.
FCC chairman Bill Kennard has complained that McCain’s action on behalf of Paxson regarding the sale of WQEX-TV was “highly unusual.” And FCC watchdog Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, called McCain’s intervention “truly extraordinary.”
McCain complains that he was forced to take the extraordinary step because the FCC had dragged its heals on the decision for more than two years.
But he has taken similar steps in the past. In the case of Tribune Broadcasting, he intervened not to help a sale go through, but to stop one which the FCC had demanded take place.
In 1998, he wrote two letters to the FCC on behalf of Tribune Broadcasting, which wanted to hold on to a newspaper and a TV station in the Miami market despite the FCC’s ban on newspaper/TV cross ownership. Tribune had bought the station in Miami market as part of a bigger deal involving Renaissance Communications. FCC rules clearly state that broadcast companies may not own a TV station and newspaper in the same market, but Tribune was trying to hold on to the station while lobbying the agency to change the rule.
McCain wrote two highly critical letters to the FCC, complaining that the agency was forcing “unwarranted and unnecessary multimillion dollar divestiture.”
Like Paxson, Tribune was facing a deadline, in this case imposed by the FCC, to sell the property. In the face of the pressure from McCain, the FCC backed down and allowed Tribune to hold on to both the station and the newspaper.
Although the Tribune Co. does not have a corporate political action committee donating money to candidates, several company execs have made personal donations to McCain’s campaign efforts.
Tribune lobbyist Shawn Sheehan noted that in one of Kennard’s responses to McCain, the FCC chairman predicted that the FCC would make a decision on the cross ownership rule in early 1998. The FCC has yet to act. “I’m still waiting,” said Sheehan.