The McCain Mutiny

Chatterbox thinks the New York Times is overreacting to the Boston Globe’s Jan. 5 scandal story about John McCain and the Federal Communications Commission. Although it attracted little attention when it first broke in Pittsburgh last month (click here to read the Dec. 16 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), the story landed on Page 1 of the Globe yesterday, and on the front page of the New York Times today. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, more appropriately, put the story on pages A5 and B5, respectively. If Chatterbox were feeling conspiratorial, he might argue that the Times is hyping the story because it previously was hyped in a newspaper its corporate parent happens to own. But that would be precisely the sort of two-plus-two-equals-five reasoning that made the FCC story Page 1 news to begin with. Probably the real reason the Times gave the story big play is that it feels self-conscious about the favorable coverage McCain’s candidacy has been getting from the media in general.

In case you missed the Globe story, or Ted Koppel’s uncharacteristically clumsy interrogation of McCain last night on Nightline, or the newspaper follow-ups today, here’s what we know: In November, and again in December, McCain, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, wrote testy letters to the FCC demanding swift action on Paxson Communications’ proposed acquisition of a Pittsburgh TV station. (The Times reprinted the December letter; to read it, click here) The deal had been held up for more than two years, even though, as the Globe noted in passing, “the FCC has never turned down a local market license transfer.” (Italics Chatterbox’s.) The only significant complication in the case was that the transfer involved a public TV station that Paxson wanted to convert to commercial use; apparently, such conversions are rare. But this was the second of two PBS affiliates in Pittsburgh. How many public TV stations does Pittsburgh need? Shortly after McCain prodded the FCC a second time, the agency approved the acquisition, which the (somewhat liberal) editorial page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettecalled “long overdue.”

The reason you’re hearing about this at all is that Paxson executives have contributed more than $20,000 to McCain’s presidential campaign, and Paxson has lent McCain its corporate jet four times (though campaign law requires McCain to reimburse Paxson the price of a first-class ticket, that doesn’t really cover the cost). Thus the implied twin themes of the Globe and Times pieces: 1) Having been nicked a decade ago by the Keating Five scandal, McCain still doesn’t understand that legislators should refrain from pressuring regulatory agencies to serve the interests of their campaign contributors; and 2) McCain’s sermons about money corrupting politics are hypocritical, because he’s just as corrupt as everyone else.

Based on what we know so far, 1) is a bum rap. As McCain has stated over and over in his defense, he never told the FCC to approve the transfer; he just asked it to stop dithering and make a decision. As he wrote in the December letter, “my purpose is not to suggest in any way how you should vote–merely that you vote.” This is absolutely what U.S. taxpayers pay McCain, as chairman of a Senate committee that oversees the FCC, to do. According to FCC chairman William E. Kennard’s reply, McCain’s query was “highly unusual,” and threatened to harm “the due process rights of the parties.” But anyone even vaguely familiar with the way the FCC works knows that it’s drowning in “due process.” Probably a more honest reply would have been: Look, we’re not supposed to say so, but one of the ways we do policy at the FCC is through delay. When you interfere with our dithering, you’re forcing us to change policy. Get off my back. But that wouldn’t have been a good answer, either; in most instances, bureaucratic delay is not the best way to make policy. Did McCain want the Paxson transfer to go through? Yes, probably. But if the inexorable logic of making a decision was that the FCC would approve the transfer, that’s hardly McCain’s fault. (Oddly, both the Times and the Globe make only glancing mention of a separate instance in which McCain complained to the FCC that it was applying too strict a standard of review to a deal involving Ameritech, whose chief was raising money for McCain. This sounds like much more of a “Keating,” but one would have to know more facts.)

On to 2): Is McCain a hypocrite? After the story broke, McCain said, “The system corrupts all of us.” This would argue for “no.” On the other hand, McCain doesn’t carry his commitment to frankness so far as to admit that of course he gave Paxson’s case more attention than he would that of someone who didn’t contribute money to his campaign. According to the Times story, McCain has

often forwarded complaints from constituents and others from outside Arizona without taking any position, following the practice of most lawmakers. Many of those were not contributors. … But in the vast majority of those particular regulatory matters where Mr. McCain himself sent a letter, the interested parties had contributed to his presidential or Senate campaigns.

According to the Post, Paxson’s lobbyist on the matter, Lanny Davis (formerly a legal flak catcher for the Clinton White House), got Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer, Tom Udall, and Ron Klink to go one step further than McCain and actually urge the FCC to approve the sale. McCain surely deserves some credit for not doing that. The more important point, though, is that if McCain’s campaign-finance bill were passed, the pressures that compel McCain, Hoyer, et al., to be more helpful to some folks than they are to others would (one hopes) be reduced. If this makes McCain a hypocrite, so are the other two major presidential candidates who are serious about campaign-finance reform. The other major candidate, George W. Bush–who’s already swatted McCain a couple of times about the FCC matter–is entirely free of this taint. But that’s just another way of saying Bush would do nothing to curb the big-money influence on politics.