FCC official wants probe of "60 Minutes" black-out

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Federal Communications Commission official is seeking an inquiry into the blacking out of a politically charged segment of the CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” by a local television station in Alabama.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said he had asked the chairman of the FCC to open an inquiry into the February 24 incident at WHNT, a CBS affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama, in which civil rights footage from the 1960s was blacked out.

“The FCC now needs to find out if something analogous is going on here,” Copps said at a luncheon with media watchdog groups. “Was this an attempt to suppress information on the public airwaves, or was it really just a technical problem?”

Copps is one of two Democratic appointees on the five-member FCC. The chairman of the agency, Kevin Martin, is a Republican.

Martin responded by saying he would look into the matter but has not indicated yet whether he would issue a letter of inquiry to the station, a source close to the commission said.

The “60 Minutes” segment centered on the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who was convicted in 2006 on charges of corruption.

The program made the case that Siegelman had been wrongly convicted on the basis of a politically motivated case built by Republican prosecutors and White House political advisor Karl Rove.

The blackout of the segment in Huntsville prompted an editorial in The New York Times the following week that raised comparisons between the WHNT incident and systematic efforts by a Mississippi TV station to suppress information about the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

WHNT denied that the blackout was politically motivated. It said it had failed to get the segment on the air because of an equipment failure at the station that cut off the feed from CBS. WHNT said the problem was corrected a few minutes before the end of the Siegelman segment.

In a posting on WHNT’s Web site, the station’s news director, Denise Vickers, said the station had been “bombarded” with complaints and accusations that the station had sabotaged the broadcast for political reasons.

“But I assure everyone that the notion is patently false,” Vickers wrote in her Web site posting. “Who would invite such a public relations nightmare on themselves??”

WHNT was sold along with eight other stations by The New York Times Co last year to the private equity firm Oak Hill Capital Partners.

Station managers requested and received permission from CBS to re-air the segment twice in the following days, Vickers said.

Copps said on Monday the FCC should move quickly to “determine the facts” surrounding the incident.

“If the decision was intentional, who made the decision and why? The FCC needs to get to the bottom of this,” Copps said. (Reporting by Peter Kaplan; editing by Stuart Grudgings)