Activists target broadcasters’ licenses in media reform drive

Feingold, Nichols team up for media reform



MADISON, Wis. (May 21, 2004) – Are the media serving the public well enough that democracy is safe from snake-oil politicians? Consider these examples:


  • When Shorewood’s Village Board recently forgave what when granted was called a $100,000 library “loan” after some trustees explained that they never intended it to be repaid, at least one trustee called it “deceitful.”


  • When Shorewood Trustee Ellen Eckman appealed to history and equity as the standard by which Village Board committee assignments must be handed out, the words were lofty but the reality was otherwise.


  • When President George W. Bush argued that the United States needed to attack Iraq because of evidence that Saddam Hussein was developing “weapons of mass destruction,” public and political opinion was swayed on the basis of the information presented to the public through the media and to Congress by the Administration. After more than 700 American deaths, we learn that information was false.


“Democracy trusts that the best decision will be made” based on sufficient, truthful information, Meredith McGehee, executive director of the national Alliance for Better Campaigns, told about 200 activists from around the state meeting Friday at the Monona Terrace Convention Center.


But the common element in the above three examples is the attempt to subvert democracy through false information.


Whether in Shorewood, Madison or Washington, decisions are only as good as the information upon which they are based.


Most Americans look to television or radio for their daily dose of public affairs reporting, but they increasingly are finding stenography of powerful officials instead of investigative reporting or political discussion of issues, according to advocates for a reform of the media.


Joining McGehee at the conference


John Nichols

were John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times, political correspondent for The Nation and co-author with Robert McChesney of Our Media, Not Theirs;

Ed Garvey, former Democratic party candidate for governor and U.S. Senate; Neil Heinen, editorial director of WISC-TV (Madison’s CBS affiliate) and editor of Madison Magazine; and Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the not-for-profit, independent coalition of individuals and groups monitoring special interest money and its influence on campaigns and politics, which sponsored the event.


The argument:


 Broadcasters are not the owners, but public trustees of the airwaves.



“It is undisputed that when a broadcaster accepts its franchise — that is, the free and exclusive use of a part of the public airwaves — that franchise is burdened by enforceable public obligations. The relationship renders broadcasters public trustees "given the privilege of using scarce radio frequencies as proxies for the entire community [and] obligated to give suitable time and attention to matters of great public concern." As a part of their license, the broadcasters are charged with serving the "public interest." Because they are the trustees of a resource that is crucial for the functioning of our democratic process, the broadcasters have a particular obligation to present political broadcasting. A requirement that they provide free time for political broadcasts is a valid and reasonable regulation of the public interest obligation.” For this document, click here


If you had to rely solely on what the Village Board said was a library “loan,” on what Trustee Eckman said about committee appointments or on what George Bush said about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, with no additional debate or inquiry, would you have enough information to make an informed decision?


Rather than facilitate democracy, the media have become “stenographers for power,” John Nichols told the gathering in his keynote address. That is, taking notes without intelligent analysis or inquiry. Consider that politics is not democracy: politics argues on partial facts meant to sway the listener, even if the argument is based on untruths; democracy works best when it has the most complete and accurate information.


“Whatever your number one issue is, don’t drop it,” Nichols said. “If your first issue is ‘Stop the War’ or ‘Health Care,’ keep it. But if media reform is not your second issue, you will never get the first.”


Nichols, a Wisconsin native who has become one of the leaders of the media reform movement, said that as the media corporations merged and swallowed up locally owned stations, resources previously available for news were sucked upward to distribute among stockholders. Without money for investigative journalism, local stations do little more than repeat what power says.



Some facts


·        In 2002, you were four times more likely to see a paid political ad during a TV newscast than an election-related news story. In fact, 56 percent of newscasts made no mention of candidates or election campaigns.

·        Wisconsin had a $23 million race for governor - triple the previous record set just four years earlier. I can give you 36,000 reasons why. That is the number of political ads aired in the state's three biggest TV markets alone, at a cost of $13 million.

·        A half dozen of Wisconsin's most powerful political figures face criminal charges of extortion, money laundering, kickbacks, bid rigging, illegal campaign contributions and criminal misconduct in public office. The charges against all but one of them trace directly to the chase for campaign cash. At a time when candidates' campaigns are little more than collection agencies for the television stations, the root cause of the biggest political corruption scandal in our state's history comes into sharp focus. The core problem is simply and undeniably TV.

·        Six corporations now control almost everything Americans read, see and hear. Just since 1995, the number of companies owning commercial TV stations has declined by 40 percent. Three media giants own all of the cable news networks, and 90 percent of the homes that have cable are served by just five companies. Not surprisingly, cable TV rates have jumped 40 percent since the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Before the 1996 Telecom Act, a company could not own more than 40 radio stations nationwide. Clear Channel now owns more than 1,200.

The airwaves and their assigned frequencies belong to the public, and the government gives broadcasters the rights to use those public resources for free, so long as they use that resource in the “public interest.” But current FCC regulations essentially leave broadcasters free to define for themselves how to fulfill their public interest obligations. Left to their own devices, broadcasters have repeatedly failed to live up to even minimal standards - particularly when it comes to covering civic affairs and elections. In 2002, for example, the majority of local newscasts that aired in the weeks leading up to Election Day contained no mention of any campaign.

In other words, broadcasters have gotten a sweetheart deal, while Americans continue to get a raw deal when it comes to our airwaves, advocates for reform argue.

The FCC should require broadcasters to live up to their part of the deal by helping citizens be more informed about important issues and elections crucial to their nation, state and local community. During the weeks close to an election, television should cover local and state and congressional races and air candidate debates and interviews to help viewers become informed voters. And broadcasters should use this new technology to offer more quality children's programming,” the Alliance for Better Campaigns argues.


Senators Russell Feingold [D-Wis.], John McCain [R-Ariz.], and Richard Durbin [D-Ill.] have introduced a bill (S. 1497) that would require television and radio stations to provide more and better information to voters before elections.


In 2002, television stations took in more than $1 billion from the sale of political ads,” according to “They're auctioning off the right to ‘free speech’ before elections to the highest bidder! The result is that only wealthy people or those with access to special interest money can afford to run for office.

The American people own the airwaves. We give broadcasters free and exclusive rights to use them, but in return they're supposed to serve the public interest. Instead, they're profiteering on our democracy,” according to the Web site.

It's time we strengthened our democracy by putting some teeth into the public interest obligations of broadcasters. You can be sure that the broadcast industry will dispatch an army of high-priced
Washington lobbyists to pressure Senators to preserve the windfall profits they make from democracy. The Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Coalition is mobilizing grassroots support for this bill now.”


The grass-roots effort intends to challenge renewal of licenses for radio and television stations that fail to provide the public interest programming voters need to make informed choices in elections. In Wisconsin, the deadline for radio license renewal is Aug. 1, 2004, while licenses expire Dec. 1, 2004. The deadline for television license renewal applications is Aug. 1, 2005. Television licenses expire Dec. 1, 2005.


Called the "Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Campaign," the project is “a nationwide effort to revitalize competition in our democratic process by ensuring that the public airwaves serve as a forum for open and vibrant political debate, especially among candidates. The Campaign is mobilizing support for proposals that ensure that broadcasters air at least a minimum amount of candidate and issue coverage in the weeks before elections, and make the airwaves accessible to more candidates - not just those with deep pockets or access to special interest dollars to pay for political advertising,” according to McGehee’s organization’s Web site,


At a minimum, supporters of the measure want local broadcasters to provide at least five minutes of meaningful political discussion or debate on issues in the 30 days preceding elections.


“Our media doesn’t know how to cover politics anymore,” says Nichols. "They give a fair and balanced report with no journalism in it.”


For example, Nichols looks to Bush-Gore Florida election results and the way the media covered the court battle. The Gore camp put former Secretary of State Warren Christopher as the spokesman, while Bush's people had former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.


“It is stenography to power,” Nichols said. “They take powerful people and let them talk for each side. They are two white men who know nothing about Florida law. There is no legitimacy. It’s just talking to powerful people who represent the parties.


“Journalism is going for the truth. It is telling Warren Christopher, ‘Get out of my way, you are irrelevant.’ It is telling James Baker, ‘Get out of my way, you’re irrelevant.’ It is telling George W. Bush, ‘Get out of my way, you’re really irrelevant.’ Journalism is going for the truth.


“We have a media that doesn’t cover the news. We no longer have journalism in this country. You can make more money setting up a camera outside Michael Jackson’s courtroom than by going to Afghanistan before the war. They give you eight minutes of weather and they get it from the National Weather Service; they don’t even do the work themselves. They’ve taken out investigative journalism and put in exercise tips.”


This situation has destroyed the fabric of democracy, he said.


“’Journalism’ is the opposite of ‘propaganda,’ Nichols said. “It is critical of power. It is never ‘fair and balanced.’ If they tell you it is ‘fair and balanced’ they mean ‘empty and irrelevant.’ Journalism should leap at the story. Journalism is exciting and threatening to power.”

“Media, on the other hand, seeks the highest profit, finds cheap sleaze and scandal; simplistic nationalism. Rather than distrust power, media ridicules dissent.


“Good journalism challenges authority; media is the opiate of totalitarianism. Our media is polluting us with commercialism; it is carpet bombing our children.”


But with the FCC proposal to deregulate media ownership last year, a barrage of public protest calls hit the agency as well as Congress.


“Now,” Nichols says, “media has become an issue in this country. It is not just something that happens to us. We can have an impact. If we maintain our activism, we can roll back the media landscape. People from Trent Lott to John Kerry are on our side, gun owners and Progressives. We need to create a force that keeps them on our side.”


This is not a partisan issue, Nichols said. “Most of the bad stuff that happened to media happened under a Democratic president and a Republican Congress."


The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has already videotaped many hours of television broadcasts in the Milwaukee area, where it is watching the content of several stations whose public-interest content is in question.


Other volunteers plan to visit stations, circulate petitions in support of requiring broadcasters to provide “more and better information about candidates and issues to voters before all elections” and to challenge license renewal where broadcasters fail to do so.