Saturday, February 23, 2008

There will be PAX in the (Allegheny) Valley

Both John McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman deny having an affair and I'll take them at their word. However, questions still have to be asked about the kind of relationship they did have even if it was strictly professional.

Bud Paxson, who ran the former PAX network, now Ion (best known for c0-producing Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye) has now jumped into the frey and shed some additional light.

From WaPo:

Paxson yesterday contradicted statements from Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign that the senator did not meet with Paxson or his lobbyist before sending two controversial letters to the Federal Communications Commission on Paxson's behalf.

Paxson said he talked with McCain in his Washington office several weeks before the Arizona Republican wrote the letters in 1999 to the FCC urging a rapid decision on Paxson's quest to acquire a Pittsburgh television station.

Paxson also recalled that his lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, likely attended the meeting in McCain's office and that Iseman helped arrange the meeting. "Was Vicki there? Probably," Paxson said in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday. "The woman was a professional. She was good. She could get us meetings."

The recollection of the now-retired Paxson conflicted with the account provided by the McCain campaign about the two letters at the center of a controversy about the senator's ties to Iseman, a partner at the lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay.

The McCain campaign said Thursday that the senator had not met with Paxson or Iseman on the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding," the campaign said in a statement.

But Paxson said yesterday, "I remember going there to meet with him." He recalled that he told McCain: "You're head of the Commerce Committee. The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."

McCain's lawyer Bob Bennett claims whether McCain spoke to Paxson isn't really such a big deal.

Oh yes it is. Lobbyists do have a place in politics but there's a difference between using a lobbyist to make a point and using one to obtain a solution. In the case of the latter there is an ethical way to do things and an unethical way.

The FCC, a quasi-judicial body, is supposed to be free from political influence and regulate the airwaves in the best interests of the people. Not the people who own the stations or phone companies, all the people. It hasn't exactly performed that function that well the last few years as it's allowed media consolidation to escalate to the point where the press exercises a form of censorship. In the case of an approval for a TV station, the FCC has a duty to decide whether it's a new one or a transfer of ownership, it judges whether it serves the local community interest.

Paxson is a plucky guy. He made a genuine attempt to break through the firewall of network TV and create a 7th network, one with a mix of family friendly and religious programming. He wasn't entirely successful but he did put some noteworthy shows on the air and he deserves praise for that.

However, it's the Pittsburgh situation that's rather interesting; if for no other reason that Vicki Iseman is from near that city.

Long story short, his mini-net, PAX, was a montage of about 60 local stations. Nearly all of them were on the UHF band. UHF stations which signals while travelling farther are seen as being less desirable than VHF stations. But he still had something close to national coverage. One city was missing a PAX affiliate. Yup, Pittsburgh. So Paxson suggested another Christian station offer to buy one of the two PBS stations in that cty -- the sister channel to the one that gave us Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Paxson would then buy that station for $35 million, swap transmitters with the Christian station, and 50% of the proceeds would go to the remaining PBS channel which was in the red at the time. (Like where this is going?)

PBS agreed it was a good deal. So they made a joint application to the FCC. Normally such approvals take about a year. After 2 1/2 years, no word -- not even a date to set a hearing. So Iseman was sent in to ask McCain for help. McCain eventually wrote two letters.

The problem isn't that McCain did write to the FCC on Paxson's behalf. He certainly had the right to. It was that McCain had already accepted $28,000 in campaign contributions from Paxon, raising a bit of a stink about his reputation for "straight talk." For that blatant breach of ethics, plus the fact that FCC staff was still going over the details of the deal with a fine tooth comb and was actually days away from a decision, McCain was openly rebuked by the Commission. More important, McCain used Paxson's corporate jet for his 2000 campaign.

What happened to the deal? Well, the FCC approved it, 3-2; but it collapsed anyway because the Christian group who also stood to benefit refused to accept an amendment to their license banning proselytizing.


So, let's see now. He gets bitten once for being part of the Keating Five. He gets bitten a second time for interfering with the FCC when he had a vested interest to do so. While the FCC story explains Iseman's presence on the corporate jet, it doesn't explain how McCain can claim to be a straight talker. He's no more a man of the people than he is a salesman trying to sell a monorail to a village.

It's also worth noting that Congress only banned its members from flying on corporate planes in 2007. What's happened before then and all the promises made in secret, away from prying media and muckraking eyes?

Certainly Obama and Clinton can't claim any high ground here -- they've done the corporate route too.

I just find it troubling that a war hero would see fit to fall into that kind of crowd. Moreover if a Senator says one thing and a businessman something quite different about the nature of their professional relationship, then it has to be investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. Given the stage of the electoral season America is in right now, I don't see any appetite for that, though.

Also remember the rather nuanced position McCain took on the Confederate Flag when he was locked in a battle with Dubya back in 2000. Both saw the South as key to their strategies and McCain later admitted he wasn't straight talking at all -- the Stars and Bars really did had to go. That reluctance to say how he really felt cost him a lot of credibility and possibly the election. I think the world would have been much better off had McCain won the GOP nod that year and not GWB.

These days, you see US networks take pains to discuss conflicts of interest on the air -- for example, if NBC is doing a story about GE's quarterly results, they'll add that GE owns the network. CNN does the same when it identifies Time or People or the gossip site TMZ as sister organizations to Turner.

Why is so hard for Senators and Representatives to do the same when they approach executive agencies? Why can't they just say: So-and-so needs movement on their disability pension; oh by the way, she also donated to my re-election campaign also?

All McCain had to do was say he was feeding at Paxson's trough. The time to have done that was back in 1999.

Now, McCain is the presumed GOP nominee.

Paxson is willing to give some straight talk. It's time for McCain to do the same ... before he locks up the nomination for sure.

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