Copps pushes for investigation of WHNT-TV outage during 60 Minutes

by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps formally asked FCC chairman Kevin Martin to investigate a "technical difficulty" at WHNT-TV Huntsville, Ala., that prevented some Alabama viewers from seeing a Feb. 24 60 Minutes story about an alleged campaign by Karl Rove, former aide to President George W. Bush, against Don Siegelman, former Democrat governor of Alabama, who was eventually jailed for corruption.

Copps was reacting to a Feb. 27 editorial in The New York Times that questioned whether the move was instead political censorship, invoking a 1955 story about WLBT-TV Jackson, Miss., refusing to run a news report about desegregation, saying that it had had cable trouble.

At a National Press Club forum on local TV and public-interest requirements, Copps said, "The FCC needs to find out if something analogous is going on here. Was this an attempt to suppress information on the public airwaves, or was there really a technical problem?"

He added that if it turned out to be intentional, the agency would need to determine "who made the decision and why. I asked the chairman's office to issue a letter of inquiry as soon as I saw the story, and I'm hopeful that the FCC will take quick action to determine the facts."

Sources said fellow Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein "fully supports" the inquiry.

Amid questions about the outage from its own viewers, including whether it might have been an attempt to sabotage the story for political reasons, WHNT news director Denise Vickers said on her station blog that the technical difficulty was legit, that the station was able to restore the broadcast with five minutes left in the piece and that it was reaired during the station's late news and the next day's 6 p.m. news. She also pointed to the station's Web site, where it could be seen in its entirety.

The station had initially said that the problem was with CBS but corrected that to say that the problem was with its own equipment.

"We sent out e-mail blasts, we posted a story on our Web site, we ran a crawl for two hours during afternoon programming, we ran a story in our newscast, we sent e-mails to individuals, we posted on blogs, we did live radio updates and sent notices to newspapers to post on their Web sites," Vickers added.

She also appeared to anticipate the FCC move, saying that some of the complaints had talked of calling for an investigation "with hopes that our FCC license will be pulled."

But Vickers said she understood how the timing of the outage and the station's ownership combined to raise suspicions of political maneuvering.

"Since our station ownership has financial backing from a group called Oak Hill Capital Partners, which is owned by the Bass brothers out of Texas," she wrote, "one viewer wrote that the Bass brothers are 'Bush fund-raisers at the 'Pioneer' level -- raising over $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaigns in both 2000 and 2004.' In journalism, we are trained to 'follow the money.'”

She added, "That's why it's entirely logical to theorize that the Bass brothers are behind this evil conspiracy to keep viewers of the Tennessee Valley from seeing the 60 Minutes broadcast on Sunday. I haven't had a chance to investigate those claims about the Bass brothers' political alliances because I've been too busy responding to the zillions of e-mails. But, I can attest that the Bass brothers had nothing to do with this. None of us has ever met the Bass brothers. They've never stepped foot in this station. They've never had interactions with any of us at WHNT-TV, nor have they ever directed us to do, say or report (or not report) anything."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey