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In 1999, while getting ready for his unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign, McCain pressured William Kennard, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to rule on a plan to swap WQEX’s channel 16 frequency and non-commercial license with the channel 40 frequency and commercial license used by Christian broadcaster WPCB.
WPCB would have become a non-commercial station on channel 16. WQEX and the channel 40 frequency would have been sold by WQED to Lowell Paxson, who was trying to launch his Pax TV network.
The deal was languishing at the FCC, in part because of protests by Pittsburghers, and because of questions over whether WPCB’s Christian programming would qualify as educational TV.
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McCain was then chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees broadcasting and telecommunications. He wrote two letters to Kennard, demanding that the FCC make a ruling or “explain why.”
The FCC approved the deal, but with stringent restrictions on WPCB’s content, and the swap was eventually canceled.
Several newspapers then reported that McCain had received campaign donations from Paxson and had made campaign trips on Paxson’s corporate jet.
Critics alleged that McCain’s actions were improper, and that his letters amounted to a veiled threat against the FCC and Kennard.
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One of the lobbyists working to build support for the Paxson-WQED deal was Vicki Iseman, formerly of Homer City.
According to the Times, Iseman also worked for Glencairn Ltd., a holding company founded by former WPTT-TV broadcaster Eddie Edwards.
FCC rules at the time forbid one company from owning two TV stations in the same city. To get around the rule (which has since been changed), Glencairn held the TV station licenses, but had agreements with Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. to operate those stations.
The Times says that McCain pressured the FCC to approve marketing agreements between Sinclair and Glencairn, and sponsored legislation to create tax breaks for minority broadcasters who owned stations. (Edwards is African-American.)
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At a press conference today, McCain said he wrote the letters in the WQEX-WPCB deal because the FCC’s decision was taking almost twice as long as normal:
I said I’m not telling you how to make a decision, I’m just telling you that you should move forward and make a decision on this issue. And I believe that was appropriate. And the former chairman of the FCC at the time in 2000 said that was more than an appropriate role for me to play as chairman of the oversight committee.
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A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Iseman is currently a partner in an Arlington, Va., based political consulting firm, Alcalde & Fay.
A biography of Iseman on the Alcalde & Fay website notes that she has “extensive experience in telecommunications, representing corporations before the House and Senate Commerce Committees” on issues including digital TV conversion and broadcast ownership rules.
The website OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political donations and lobbyists, claims her lobbying clients have included other broadcasters, including AMFM Inc. and Capstar Inc., two predecessors of today’s Clear Channel Communications.
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Alcade & Fay today released a statement blasting the Times for what it called an “utterly false” story filled with “allegations and malicious innuendo”:
Alcalde & Fay’s relationship with Senator McCain has been professional, appropriate and consistent with his legislative, jurisdictional and constituent duties. The story is based upon the fantasies of a disgruntled former campaign employee and is without foundation or merit.
Ms. Iseman is a hard working professional whose 18-year career has been exemplary and she has our full support. It is beneath the dignity of a quality newspaper to participate in such a campaign of character assassination.
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McCain’s campaign manager calls the Times “the largest liberal newspaper in America” and says it’s “trying to run a smear campaign against the integrity of the new conservative Republican nominee for president.”
Journalism experts are also questioning the newspaper’s decision to base most of the story on comments from anonymous sources, and whether the story actually breaks any new ground.
Columbia Journalism Review says the story “walks the line between information and inference”:
(The story) rehashes an incident from 1999 in which the senator received rebuke from the FCC after he wrote its chair urging it to give quick consideration to a TV license request from Paxson Communications, whose CEO — a friend of McCain’s — had provided McCain with several thousand dollars’ worth of cash and services. Though the Paxson affair made headlines at the time, the only new pieces of information … a decade later, are details of McCain’s relationship with Iseman, who lobbied for Paxson. Would ‘For McCain’ have been a page-one story without its suggestions of sexual impropriety?
Several Pittsburgh TV stations are part of a controversy swirling around U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Arizona.
The political flap is the result of a hotly disputed story in the New York Times about McCain, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
The front-page report, which depends heavily on anonymous sources, says that McCain was too friendly with a lobbyist who worked on behalf of causes that the senator became personally involved with.
One of those causes was the proposed license swap between WQEX-TV (16) and WPCB-TV (40).
In addition, the story implies that McCain had ulterior motives for encouraging regulators to approve other deals, including the one that put WPGH-TV (53) and then-WPTT-TV (22) under the same control.
The lobbyist named in the story is Indiana County native Vicki Iseman, who has also reportedly done work for AMFM Inc. and Capstar, two of the companies that merged into Clear Channel Communications.
McCain’s campaign manager calls it a “smear campaign” by the Times, while the lobbying firm for which Iseman works says the story is filled with “malicious innuendo.”