A perfunctory, noncommittal statement about AT&T's proposed buyout of T-Mobile, made by an anonymous FCC "official," is being widely interrupted by anyone with a computer keyboard as an official FCC position on the deal.
The statement was reported in a Wall Street Journal story that uses the official's comments to suggest the $39 billion deal "could be facing an uphill climb at the Federal Communications Commission."
The quote in full: "There's no way the chairman's office rubber-stamps this transaction. It will be a steep climb to say the least." The story continues with a perfunctory observation by the same official that rather contradicts the story's assumption: "The official stressed that the agency hasn't even begun to formally evaluate AT&T's proposal and will examine the deal on its merits and whether it's in the public interest."
Those are the only comments by or attributed to the unnamed official. The rest of the story summarizes the announced deal, describes growing concerns about it by Democratic senators in Washington, and explains at some length an imminent decision by the FCC to compel wireless carrier to allow roaming of data sessions as they do with voice calls.
As quoted, the official's statement actually is what's known as a "straw man" argument -- one that appears to refute a proposition by substituting one that is superficially similar. In the intense coverage, and widespread criticism, of the surprise deal, announced on March 20, few have said that the overriding issue is the FCC's willingness to "rubber-stamp" the transaction. (Although DSL Reports' Karl Bode does assert that "The problem of course is that the FCC generally does rubber-stamp such deals ...")
"The official declined to comment on the record," according to the Journal story, which apparently means, "He wouldn't let us use his name," since his (or her) comment is indeed now on the record.
Internet news sites amped up the implications of the anonymous official's routine comments even more than the Journal.
"FCC takes stand on T-Mobile, AT&T merger," according to the headline at TG Daily. Yet the story's opening sentence is more modest: "The regulatory committee that needs to approve the merger between T-Mobile and AT&T may give the companies a hard time, due to potential antitrust concerns." The word "antitrust" was not used in the Wall Street Journal story.
The Inquirer, too, leads off its story about the story with a headline that clearly says the FCC has already made up its mind about the deal: "FCC official says 'no way' to AT&T's move to buy T-Mobile USA."
Nick Farrell, writing at Fudzilla, interprets the anonymous comments as one of the "signs that AT&T's buyout of T-Mobile will get a rough ride, if it even manages to get through." The headline: "It looks like it will hit trouble."
Electronista's account actually adds words to the anonymous official's comments: "FCC official: no way AT&T T-Mobile deal will go unaltered," according to the headline. The story, by "Electronista staff," then attributes to the official statements that were never made in the Journal story: "An anonymous FCC official on Wednesday night said that the proposed AT&T buyout of T-Mobile would very likely go through major changes if it were to be approved at all. He ... was confident FCC chair Julius Genachowski would either require conditions or ban the deal." The story continues: "The WSJ didn't learn which of the two was the more likely but was told a greenlight was a virtual impossibility."
VentureBeat's MobileBeat blog doesn't go that far. "FCC official: AT&T's T-Mobile deal will face 'steep climb,'" reads the headline, and then leads off with, "AT&T's $39 billion deal to purchase T-Mobile won't be entirely smooth sailing for the carrier -- not that we expected any less."
TUAW, the unofficial Apple Weblog, is still more circumspect. Its headline is one of the few to add an additional layer of critical distance, referring to the original story: "Report: FCC official doubts AT&T + T-Mobile deal will sail through." "So, not exactly a vote of confidence from the FCC so far. Still, that's far from an official statement ..." according to TUAW.
And that comment may be the perfect summary of what happens when an official of some kind speaks both unofficially and anonymously.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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