New FCC ownership studies: garbage in, garbage out

by Bob Williams, Hear Us Now

Garbage in, garbage out.

That's the idea that putting a bunch of lousy data into a computer will invariably produce results that are equally lousy -- or possibly even worse. Unfortunately for consumers and citizens, it's a term that applies far too well to the course the Federal Communications Commission is taking in revising crucial media ownership rules.

Here's the background.

In 2003, the FCC voted to repeal several rules that encouraged diverse media ownership and helped limit unchecked media consolidation. In reaction, a wide range of public interest groups filed an appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to stop those rules from taking effect. In June 2004, the Court stayed the effective date of the new rules and ordered the FCC to rewrite them.

In June 2006, the FCC restarted the process of rewriting its media ownership rules. One of the first things it did was order up a set of 10 studies on various aspects of media ownership by people inside and outside the agency.

The FCC released those studies late last week. But instead of providing an unbiased and unvarnished examination of the critical issue of media ownership, it appears the studies were carefully crafted by FCC officials to make a case for relaxing the agency's existing media ownership rules.

In other words, it appears the agency decided internally to bow to the wishes of big media companies and relax its media ownership rules -- an action that had already been tossed out by a federal court -- and then ordered up some studies specifically designed to support such an outcome.

Consumers Union -- the publisher of this blog -- and other public interest groups have issued a report on the studies called "Bias Questions Yield Biased Answers: How the FCC Loaded the Dice in Setting its Media Ownership Reseach Agenda." Click here to read the report.

"The agency failed to conduct an external review of the research design, failed to conduct a competitive bid to select researchers, and did not conduct a peer review of the results," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America and author of the report. "The deck was stacked before the research commenced."

According to a July 2006 research plan -- obtained by the consumer groups via a Freedom of Information Act request -- FCC Chief Economist Leslie M. Marx began the research process with "thoughts and ideas" about "how the FCC can approach relaxing newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restriction."

The chief economist then identified "some studies that might provide valuable inputs to support a relaxation of newspaper-broadcast ownership limits." The studies outlined in the document were then implemented by the FCC, and at least one researcher identified as being on the "A-list" was chosen to carry them out.

"The FCC's chief economist started from the results the agency wanted and worked backward," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, "selecting studies and framing research questions to reach a foregone conclusion."

Garbage in, garbage out. But wait, it gets worse.

The public is only getting 60 days to dissect the voluminous studies and file any comments with the FCC. It should be noted that it took the economists and others hand-selected by the FCC more than eight months to put together the studies. One single study in the set contains more than 13 billion data points.

Two FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, quickly blasted the short timetable in a joint statement. They didn't mince their words.

"Just when we hoped an open media ownership process was developing here at the FCC, along comes this bucket of ice water. These are ten supposedly serious studies put together by teams of economists and analysts over an eight month period. Yet the Commission expects the public to analyze all ten studies, and reams of underlying data, and file comments 60 days from today!

"This is unfair, unnecessary, and ultimately unwise – inviting public, Congressional, and judicial outrage reminiscent of what happened when the FCC tried to loosen media ownership rules four years ago. The Commission’s action today does not inspire confidence that this time around we are serious about getting it right."

We agree, but it won't be enough for the FCC to simply allow additional time for the public to comment on the biased studies. At this point, the agency needs to admit it screwed up and commission a new set of truly unbiased studies on media ownership.

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