An NPR story this morning sums up Senator John McCain’s involvement in a 1999 FCC decision over a TV license deal in Pittsburgh. Whether McCain was acting on behalf of broadcast company lobbyists to influence the FCC’s decision when he wrote two letters, urging a vote on the license deal, is the point of contention that surfaced during his 2000 presidential campaign, and again last week in an article by The New York Times.

Paxson Communications, a broadcast company with TV stations across the country, was the buyer hoping to acquire a Pittsburgh TV outlet. Pittsburgh community activists opposed the deal, which required approval from the FCC.

At the time, Senator McCain chaired the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC. McCain had also received at least $30,000 in campaign donations in 1998 and 1999 from company owner Lowell “Bud” Paxson, his family, lawyers, and other company executives.

Paxson and allied lobbyists approached McCain in late 1999, asking him to write a letter to the FCC urging a vote on the deal before it expired at the end of the year.

According to NPR:

In 2002, McCain recounted the conversation in a deposition on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

He said in his deposition that he told Paxson, “I will not write a letter, I cannot write a letter, asking them to approve or deny.” But he would be glad to ask them to act, which he did.

McCain sent off a strongly worded letter on Nov. 17, and his next letter, on Dec. 11, was even tougher. The commissioners got it just before their year-end meeting.

McCain said the five commissioners should each explain in writing if they had acted, and if not, why not. The letter included language, typical for McCain, that he was not trying to influence the decision.

But the commission chairman suggested that the senator could have influenced the process and told McCain the letter was “highly unusual.”

The FCC commission did vote on the deal, in favor of the Paxson acquisition, but the deal later collapsed.

The controversial New York Times story last week about McCain’s connection to Paxson lobbyist Vicki Iseman brought this issue back into the media spotlight.

NPR’s take on the controversy includes a graphic timeline of events, and Vicki Iseman’s lobbyist disclosure filing, annotated to show what information is, isn’t, and possibly should be included in lobbyist filings. Both the timeline and annotated disclosure form were researched and reported by CIR’s staff reporter Will Evans.

Carrie Ching

Carrie Ching is an award-winning, independent multimedia journalist and producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For six years, she led digital storytelling projects at the Center for Investigative Reporting as senior multimedia producer. Her multimedia reports have been featured by NPR.org, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, Grist, Time.com, Fast Company, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, KQED, PBS NewsHour, Salon.com, Mother Jones, Public Radio International, Poynter, Columbia Journalism Review and many other publications. Her specialty is crafting digital narratives and exploring ways to use video, audio, photography, animation and interactive graphics to push the boundaries of storytelling on the Web, tablets and mobile. Her work has been honored with awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Best of the West, the Online News Association, Scripps Howard, The Gracies, and was part of the entry in a Pulitzer-finalist project. Prior to her time at CIR she was a magazine and book editor, video journalist, newspaper reporter and TV comedy scriptwriter. She was on the 2010 Eddie Adams Workshop faculty as a multimedia producer working with MediaStorm to teach digital storytelling techniques to photojournalists. She completed a master’s degree in journalism at UC Berkeley in 2005.