The FCC and Armstrong Williams' Continuing Legacy

There are many reasons why federal investigations might take some time to conclude. Perhaps the issues are complex. Maybe the parties under investigation are less than forthcoming. The investigating agency may lack the resources needed to resolve the matter in a timely fashion.

Armstrong WilliamsOn the other hand, a stalled investigation may be part of a crisis management strategy. When an embarrassing ethical or legal transgression surfaces, launching an investigation sends the message that the matter is being taken seriously. Thanks to a rapid news cycle and a lack of follow-up reporting, public attention shifts elsewhere as the investigation continues. Closing the investigation can be seen as counter-productive, as it once again calls attention to the problem and creates the expectation that the findings will be acted upon.

Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) may well have been pondering such matters on March 14, when he pointedly asked Federal Communications Commission Chair Kevin Martin about the status of the agency's ongoing Armstrong Williams investigation.

The questioning occurred during an FCC oversight hearing, held by a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

As you may remember, Armstrong Williams is a conservative commentator who was retained by the U.S. Education Department, as a subcontractor of the public relations firm Ketchum, to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Williams' $240,000 government contract and his failure to disclose it, first reported on by USA Today's Greg Toppo in January 2005, spurred public outrage and calls for accountability.

To date, two government reports on Williams have been released -- both late on a Friday, presumably to limit media coverage of them. In May 2005, the Education Department's Office of Inspector General stated that it had "found no evidence of any ethical violations," though it admitted there were "poor management decisions," and "poor judgment and oversight."

In September 2005, the Government Accountability Office issued a harsher assessment, finding that aspects of the Education Department's contract with Ketchum violated federal law. "The Department violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences his relationship with the Department," concluded the GAO.

Meanwhile, the FCC's investigation into the Williams affair remains open. However, Rep. Dingell's recent questioning of FCC Chair Martin did reveal new information, as well as establish a mandate for yet another report, on the status of the agency's ongoing investigation.

The following is a transcript of Dingell's exchange with Martin on the matter:

Rep. Dingell: There's a very interesting matter that has come to my attention. The FCC, in January 2005, began an investigation into potential violations of sponsorship identification rules, involving a certain commentator by the name of Armstrong Williams. He had a contract with the Department of Education that stated that Mr. Williams would regularly comment on certain matters during television broadcasts in response to generous payments by the Department, of public monies. Have you completed an investigation on this matter?

FCC Chair Martin: We've sent... We began an investigation of the 12 broadcasters who were identified as ever having provided Armstrong Williams...

Dingell: Have you completed an investigation?

Martin: We've completed the investigation in relation to seven of them, who came back and said they did not put on any of the Armstrong Williams shows in question. And there are three that we have ongoing investigations, that we sent further follow-up letters to.

Dingell: So you have an ongoing investigation going on, at the agency?

Martin: Yes.

Dingell: Now this is, this... You know, I was on this committee years ago, when we went into the question of payola. Have you studied the history of that?

Martin: I... We've tried, but I'm sure not enough.

Dingell: It was an interesting thing. It resulted in the departure from public service by a large number of people, including folks at the Commission. And, if my memory serves me correctly, it also resulted in some good-hearted folks going to jail. This sort of reminds me of this. Is there other information you need, on these matters?

Martin: From at least one broadcaster, as I understand, we did not get complete information on the most recent letter we just received from them last week. So there is some more information, but I will have to get back to you on the exact status of what information we need from the three...

Dingell: ... Would you, Mr. Chairman, give us a full report, in writing, as to the status of the investigation of the Federal Communications Commission on this matter? And, I would like, in that matter, to have you inform us what further information you need, what your judgments might be with regard to Mr. Armstrong Williams' settlement with the Department of Education, and how close the FCC is to concluding four major payola investigations in the music industry. Seems like not just the music industry, but very frankly the government engages in a little payola. And we would like to also have a statement as to whether you have adequate resources to address this, and, again, we would like this report in the next 30 days, if you please.

Martin: Sure, provided both on the Armstrong Williams investigation and the status of the...

Dingell: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Rep. Dingell's comparison of the Armstrong Williams situation to payola -- record companies paying radio stations to play certain songs or musicians -- is apt. Indeed, Williams has been called a "payola pundit."

Hopefully, Martin's interim report to Dingell will both reveal how the FCC is investigating a politically sensitive matter, and spur the agency to issue a final report. It's not clear if the interim report will be made public; the Center for Media and Democracy's repeated queries on the matter have not yet been answered by House staffers. Stay tuned!

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.

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