PFF's Thierer Notes Methodology Changes are Boosting Numbers
WASHINGTON D.C. - The Federal Communications Commission tallies complaints regarding broadcast indecency in a matter different from all other complaints received by the agency, finds Progress & Freedom Foundation Senior Fellow Adam Thierer , and the methodology changes resulting in those differences have inflated the total number of complaints. These are the findings of a PFF study published today titled "Examining the FCC's Complaint-Driven Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Process." The FCC in recent years has increased its fines for broadcast indecency and has cited rising complaints as a reason. Thierer's study calls into question the reliability of those quarterly compilations, the most recent of which was issued by the FCC Friday.
"The FCC now measures indecency complaints differently than all other types of complaints," says Thierer. "In so doing, it permits a process whereby indecency complaints appear to be artificially inflated relative to other types of complaints. Journalists, policy makers, social scientists, and others should weigh this disparate treatment when considering the significance of the reported figures."
In recent years the FCC has quietly and without major notice made two methodological changes to its tallying of broadcast indecency complaints, both changes urged upon the FCC by a single advocacy group targeting broadcast indecency:
On July 1, 2003, the agency began tallying each computer-generated complaint sent to the FCC by any advocacy group as an individual complaint, rather than as one complaint as had been done previously. The advocacy group benefiting from that change had challenged the FCC to make the change by June 30th and boasted later that it was responsible for the FCC's redirection, citing reassurances of FCC commissioners.
In the first quarter of 2004 -- the time when the Super Bowl incident with Janet Jackson occurred -- the FCC began counting complaints multiple times if the individual sent the complaint to more than one office within the FCC. This change, which had the capability of increasing by a factor of 5 or 6 or 7 the number of complaints recorded, was noted in a footnote of that quarter's FCC Quarterly Report. The footnote acknowledged that "[t]he reported counts may also include duplicate complaints or contacts..."
Thierer points out that upwards of 99% of the broadcast indecency complaints received by the FCC have come from campaigns generated by a single advocacy group. He further shows that those totals have been inflated by changes in methodology by the agency, changes not made to other complaints received on topics as disparate as cable rates and spectrum interference.
"Government data isn't always as accurate or reliable as it could be," Thierer concedes. "But at least there isn't something mysterious about the way most numbers are gathered or computed. In the case of indecency complaints at the FCC, the numbers are highly suspect."
The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. It is a 501(c)(3) research & educational organization.