In an unexpected statement at the FCC's January meeting, Jonathan Adelstein called for the agency to investigate whether conservative commentator Armstrong Williams or broadcasters violated laws for failing to disclose that Williams was paid to espouse particular views.
Adelstein said a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that bars payola, the practice of independent music promoters paying radio stations to play the songs of affiliated arts, also applies to journalists.
"I am going to insist that we investigate this incident and every incident that is reported to us," said Adelstein, a Democratic-selected commissioner who was reappointed last month to a five-year term by the Bush administration. He said the agency had received at least 12 letters of complaint about the matter.
FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief David Solomon said later in the meeting that he had not begun an investigation. Complaints about and investigations into music payola are extremely rare, and the last enforcement action occurred in 2000.
USA Today reported Friday that the Education Department paid a company owned by Williams $240,000 to promote the 2002 education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act. The story has revived the media debate about the use of paid editorial views in broadcasts without identifying the sponsors of the views.
But Adelstein said the provision of the law that bars payment for broadcasts that are undisclosed is extremely broad. Referring to two sections dealing with payola, he said "both are clearly implicated by the Armstrong Williams" incident.
Adelstein said Williams' failure to disclose his payments to the broadcasters who aired him would subject him to criminal penalties of up to one year. If Williams disclosed his contract to the broadcasters and they failed to disclose it on air, they would be subject to fines and license revocations, Adelstein said.
The payola rules only apply to broadcast radio and television, not to cable or the Internet, Adelstein and Solomon both said.
A nonprofit organization that bills itself as a media reform group on Thursday condemned Williams' non-disclosure and said it has collected 20,000 signatures for a petition demanding FCC and congressional investigations.
"Williams has issued a mea culpa in hopes this will go away, but the scandal is about more than journalistic ethics," said Josh Silver, executive director of the group, Free Press. "Undisclosed payments to shape broadcast matter are illegal payola. Laws have been broken, and it's time for Congress and the FCC to step in and answer some questions."
FCC Chairman Michael Powell declined comment on the matter. In an interview after the FCC meeting, Solomon said he believes the FCC never has attempted to apply payola or indecency laws against individuals, as opposed to licensed broadcasters.