McCain and the Dirty Deed

John Sundman wants sexy details on John McCain, Vicky Iseman, and Paxson Communications. I’ll tell all I know.

Cornerstone TeleVision had sought to obtain the noncommercial license for WQEX, owned by Pittsburgh public broadcaster WQED, and then to transfer the license to Paxson Communications with Cornerstone and WQED splitting the $35 million Paxson was putting up for the sale. The proposal was virtually unprecedented since it involved transfer of noncommercial license held by a public broadcaster to a commercial enterprise. The complicated plan was an attempt to end-run a 1996 FCC ruling that WQEX could not be “dereserved,” i.e., commercialised, by a direct sale to a commercial broadcaster.

The Republican minority on the FCC supported the plan, the Democrats opposed… until John McCain weighed in via his December 10, 1999 letter to the FCC, demanding that the FCC Commissioners ”advise me, in writing, no later than close of business on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 1999, whether you have already acted upon these applications…. If your answer to the latter question is no, please state further whether you will, or will not, be prepared to act on these applications at the open meeting on Dec. 15. If your answer to both of the preceding questions is no, please explain why“ (the full text of McCain’s letter to FCC Chairman William Kennard may be found here).

McCain had held up confirmation of Democrat Susan Ness’ reappointment to the FCC since the previous July. Apprised of McCain’s adamant support for Paxson on this issue, Ness voted against her fellow Democrats to approve the deal. As far as I know, the only ones getting screwed in all this were the Democrats by Ness (who caved to pressure from McCain — and despite repeated gutlessness in dealing with the Republican Congress Ness is frequently mooted as the next FCC Chairman if Clinton is elected).

And even then the well-laid plan of Paxson fell apart over a condition placed by the FCC on the deal, prohibiting Cornerstone from ”proselytising,” an important issue, since the transfer involved a religious broadcaster taking over an educational TV station.


  1. First of all, Greg, please accept my apology for failing to cite you as an eminent authority in my shout out to Harold,

    Second, thanks for the explication. Which also answers a question for me about how the PAX “Christian” stations got their name (Pax is also Latin for “peace”, noted.)

    I’m still trying to get a sense of how inappropriate McCain’s letter was, and how bogus the FCC’s ruling in Pax’s favor was.

  2. McCain’s letter went well beyond the usual letter from a member of Congress. It is not uncommon for members of Congress to send letters to the FCC urging the Commission to resolve a matter quickly. What made McCain’s letter unusual was (a) the demand to have Commissioner’s state their positions prior to a vote; and (b) demand, in his capacity as chair of the relevant Senate oversight committee, to explain why the item was not on the agenda for the upcoming meeting.

    As Greg mentioned, Susan Ness’ situation gave McCain’s actions particular weight with her. Ness’ term had expired, and she had been renominated. However, the Senate Commerce Committee (chaired by McCain) had not acted on her renomination. As December wound down, it was important for Ness to be confirmed. If confirmed, she could not be removed by the incoming President. By contrast, if not confirmed, although she could continue to occupy the seat, the incoming President could nominate someone else for the vacancy.

    The ruling itself was unprecedented, in that since the FCC set aside a reserve for educational stations in the television band, those stations _must_ be occupied by educational stations. The status of religious stations has always been touchy, and the FCC guidelines made clear what activity was considered broadly educational and what was not. The effort to set those guidelines out explicitly in the license transfer was one of the things that created significant controversy, as the Republicans portrayed this as an anti-religious break with tradition (when, in fact, it merely reiterated guidelines in place since the 50s).

    All in all, it was a major mess and a considerable headache, and certainly not what one would consider Susan Ness’ finest hour. Big thumbs up to Commissioner Tristani, however, who as usual told the flat unvarnished truth in her dissenting statement. Go Gloria!

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