Everybody wants to get into the [Data Quality] Act

by Matthew Lasar  Sep 15 2007 - 8:40am     

The recent move by three media reform groups to challenge the Federal Communications Commission's ten media ownership studies is not the first time that the Data Quality Act (DQA) has been used in this proceeding. Some months ago, its author, former Nixon/Reagan administration official Jim Tozzi, invoked the obscure law to dispute another report: the FCC's famous "deep sixed" localism study.

You may have to be somewhat
older to get
this reference.

That document was reportedly squelched by the agency's then Chair, Michael Powell, because he did not like the study's conclusion that locally owned TV stations generate more local news.

After the report mysteriously resurfaced and was cited by Senator Barbara Boxer at a Senate Committee hearing, Tozzi filed comments with the FCC contending that it didn't pass muster with the DQA.

The localism study, Tozzi argued, was a "third-party information submission" that did not comply with FCC and OMB standards because it used "arbitrary and non-replicable methodology," "biased protocol," and failed to reveal its "underlying data." Plus it did not adequately define the concept of locality and the "mean" individual (as in "average" as opposed to snarly) in the survey.

The document also "Failed to Recognize Diversity Between Communities" and excluded the Fox Network, sports, and weather from its range of media companies and subjects. Otherwise I guess it was a great piece of analysis.

The DQA was a two sentence rider that Tozzi, former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), added to a Congressional appropriations bill in 2000. 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."

Now Tozzi swats government proceedings with the DQA from his present perch: the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. His law is not without critics. They say that the DQA has allowed the Bush administration and industry lobbyists to second guess and even block necessary environmental and product safety regulations.

But despite the controversy over the DQA, Freepress, the Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America have filed a complaint charging that the FCC's new media ownership studies don't meet the law's standards. They say that:

  • "The Commission's Studies Are Not Reproducible." The Data Quality Act requires that government studies must be duplicable by other scholars. "The Commission has not provided the sufficient data for enough time to perform such analyses," they write. "The public cannot evaluate these ten studies under the Commission’s rushed timeline." The FCC released the studies with a 60 day comment cycle, which the three groups say is an inadequate window for public comment.
  • The peer review process is inadequate, because: the agency should have solicited peer review reports before releasing the studies, not after; the selected peers had little to do with monitoring or helping shape and improve the studies; the FCC did not solicit public participation in the peer review process; and the FCC has done little to ensure that that process will remain balanced, given the controversy over the "deep sixed" localism report:
    "The Commission should not select only those reviewers who would agree with the FCC’s conclusions in its 2003 Order [which eliminated many media ownership limits and was overturned by a Federal court a year later] or with the conclusions presented in other studies that the Commission has not suppressed or destroyed. To ensure a balanced panel of reviewers, the Commission should encourage public participation. The general public, as well as consumer groups like the Commenters, should be invited to nominate expert reviewers to ensure balanced panels."
  • The Commission should provide more time for the peer review process. The filing asks for 90 more days "running from the availability of the data necessary for reproducibility."

Several days after Freepress and the two consumer groups submitted their complaint, Jim Tozzi also filed a statement with the FCC. It discloses that on September 13th he met with Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate "to discuss the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness’ ('CRE’s') position in the above referenced proceedings. Our discussion was consistent with the filings made by CRE in these proceedings"—they being the FCC's media ownership dockets.

LLFCC has contacted Tozzi to see if he'll tell us what he and Tate talked about.

Update (September 17):

As promised, LLFCC spoke with Jim Tozzi this morning. We had this exchange:

LLFCC: You met with the staff of FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate the other day. What did you talk about?

JIM TOZZI: I just briefly went over there and said that you have to start looking at the Data Quality Act because it's probably going to impact your operation.

LLFCC: Why did your organization file that objection to the so-called "deep sixed" study.

TOZZI: Because we are a watchdog operation. How we operate is—you can't hire us to represent you. We look at an agency that we want to work on, and then we go to industry and we say that the FCC hasn't really, any independent agency hasn't been doing too much on the Data Quality Act. We want to work on that, will you give us a grant?

So we knocked on doors and got some money to file petitions and do whatever we wanted.

LLFCC: So what industries gave you the money?

TOZZI: Industries from the telecommunications industry.

LLFCC: Could you be more specific? What were the names of those companies?

TOZZI: I don't need to tell you that. It was telecommunications. They don't tell us the details of which proceeding. It's more our call. We targeted that. And I do not want to suggest that we receive funds only from the telecommunications industry; that would be incorrect, we receive funding from virtually every major sector, e.g., health, pharmaceuticals, chemical, and autos.

LLFCC: What do you think of the fact that three consumer groups have filed objections under the data quality act to the FCC's ten new media ownership studies?

TOZZI: That's a good question. First of all I think it's a very professional document. It was very professionally done. It did not have a lot of rhetoric. It got right to the point. They made some points that were right on, particularly the fact that you have to have peer review before the document comes out. They made a statement that I can't agree or disagree with. They said that out of the ten studies, none of the data was reproducible. I can't say that I disagree or agree with that, because I haven't read all ten studies. I can say this. Two of them; I think it is number eight—"women and minority ownership"—they're certainly right on that one.

I also read numbers four and number six, and those two studies, in my opinion, support my earlier statement that the controversial FCC study does not meet the requirements of the DQA. So I have anecdotal evidence that some of the statements that they make are correct. But I can't go further. I haven't read all the studies.