Activists target broadcasters’ licenses in media
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:
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
- 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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.
2002, television stations took in more than $1 billion from the sale of
political ads,” according to www.bettercampaigns.org.
“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.
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
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.
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, http://www.bettercampaigns.org/docs/index.php?DocID=11.
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
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
“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
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
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.