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Former Nixon/Reagan administration official tells FCC to deep-six Localism Study once more

By Matthew Lasar
Created May 4 2007 - 11:44pm

Remember that FCC Localism Study [2] that United States Senator Barbara Boxer charged had been "deep-sixed" by someone at the Commission? The one that said that locally owned TV stations produce more local news?

Well, the FCC should deep-six it again, says a former Nixon and Reagan administration Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official.

The study is a "third-party information submission" that doesn't comply with FCC and OMB standards because it uses "arbitrary and non-replicable methodology," "biased protocol," and fails to reveal its "underlying data." So dump it and maybe even dump all the comments that cite it on the FCC's localism and media-ownership dockets.

These are the recommendations that Jim Tozzi of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness [3] (CRE) filed with the Federal Communications Commission today. Tozzi, who worked for the OMB from the Nixon through the Reagan years, cites the Data Quality Act (DQA), a law he helped get Congress to pass in 2000, as the basis for his claims.

The DQA was a two sentence rider added to a Congressional appropriations bill. Its eye-glazing language requires the OMB to issue "guidelines providing policy and procedural guidance to Federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information disseminated by Federal agencies."

That's in theory. In practice, say critics, the DQA has allowed the Bush administration and industry lobbyists to second guess and even block [4] necessary environmental and product safety regulations.

Deep Background

The study that Jim Tozzi says must die die die was uncovered by someone at the FCC and leaked to Senator Boxer just before the reconfirmation hearing of FCC Kevin Martin on September 12th, 2006.

Boxer gave Martin hell for it [4]. Written by Keith Brown and Peter Alexander of the FCC's Media Bureau in 2004, it found that local ownership of a TV station "adds almost five and one-half minutes of local news and over three minutes of local on-location news."

The rediscovery of the report gave a boost to defenders of the FCC rules preventing media consolidation—rules that Martin voted to scotch in 2003, only to see a Federal Court insist that they mostly stay put.

It also raised questions about how the study disappeared in the first place, questions posed as the FCC launched a new proceeding on its localism and media ownership rules.

University of Michigan law professor Adam Candeub, who worked for the FCC in 2004, subsequently told reporters that pressure came from above to suppress the study.

"The initial results were very compelling, and it was just stopped in its tracks because it was not the way the agency wanted to go," Candeub told the Los Angeles Times. But evidently, it's also not the way that Jim Tozzi wants things to go.

Tozzi's case against the Localism Study

Tozzi cites a host of objections to the study. Here are four:

The FCC did not initiate the study: " . . . there is no indication that the document is a 'Commission-initiated or sponsored distribution of information intended for the public' or went through the Commission's Pre-Dissemination Information Review and Substantiation Process," Tozzi writes.

Actually, there is the minor detail that the study was written by two employees of the Federal Communications Commission, but Tozzi argues that this supposed lack of evidence makes the document a "Third Party Study," as opposed to an "FCC information product."

The published study does not include the data used in the analysis, specifically the news stories considered.. No, Brown and Alexander didn't print all the news stories used in the report, but they told the reader where they got them, from a database of 4,078 individual stories compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and kept at the University of Delaware.

The study arbitrarily defines localism. Tozzi claims that the authors' definition of "local" as a story important to "the mean individual residing within the [Designated Market Area]" would exclude "a story about a local resident currently serving away from home in the armed forces . . . " That is, unless the TV station interviewed the resident's family, friends, former employer, teacher, or a dozen other local connections invariably included in such features.

The study did not define what it meant as a 'mean' individual. "Aside from the lack of specificity as to how the author defined a mean individual is the equally significant problem that the study does not indicate if or how the attributes of the mean individual varied between communities," Tozzi writes.

In fact, Brown and Alexander addressed this exact question in their definition of 'mean.' "For example," they wrote, "Federal budget negotiations in Washington, D.C., take place within that DMA and, given the large population of local interested parties, the mean individual in the Washington, D.C., DMA is likely more interested in the Federal budget negotiations than the mean individual in other DMAs."

Tozzi pads his case against the study with additional objections, including "Failure to Recognize Diversity Between Communities," an "Arbitrary Measurement of Localism," the exclusion of the Fox broadcast network, as well as the exclusion of sports and weather.

But my guess is that Tozzi's biggest objection to the study is that whoever hired his "Center for Regulatory Effectiveness" doesn't like it.

"CRE recognizes that numerous stakeholders have cited the Localism Study in their comments and therefore may have an interest in knowing its status under the DQA," Tozzi writes, as if his filing settles the question.

Tozzi cc'd his list of technical torpedos to the Consumer's Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Free Press, the AFL-CIO, and the Institute for Public Representation, among other parties. Doubtless their replies will appear on the media ownership and localism dockets soon.

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