FCC commissioner seeks disclosure of government-paid journalists

Television and radio journalists paid to promote viewpoints, and the broadcasters who air those views, must disclose the sources of funding or face prosecution under communications laws that bar "payola," an FCC commissioner said Thursday.

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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    Download
  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

    Download
  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

    Download
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    Download
  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.