Broadcasting, Disclosure and Democracy

When we speak of “wireless” these days, we’re talking about cell phones and other devices we use on the go – many enabled with mobile broadband. But the term wireless first came into use about 100 years ago when radio receivers and transmitters were introduced. Radio broadcasters and, of course, television broadcasters are licensed by the federal government to use spectrum, the airwaves, to transmit their signals. With those licenses come requirements to serve the public’s interests, not just the narrow commercial interests of the licensees. This week we look at developments in broadcast regulation that could have a major impact on our democracy.

Back in the summer of 1995, the Federal Communications Commission started asking for public input on what the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters should be when they complete the transition to digital broadcasting technology. Obviously, broadcasters have made that technical transition, but, 5310 days and counting later, the FCC still hasn’t completed its work on determining what “in the public interest” means in the digital age.

In late October 2011, the FCC proposed new rules that would require television broadcasters to submit documents to an online public file hosted by the FCC. The FCC proposed to streamline the information broadcasters will need to provide by requiring the FCC to import information already filed with the FCC, and exempts certain items from being posted online such as letters and e-mails from the public. The proposal further seeks comment on posting sponsorship identification information, now disclosed only on-air, and shared services agreements online. (Read the complete proposal)

The FCC proposed that the disclosed and posted information include: maps of the station’s service area; sponsorship identification when “advertisers have been allowed to dictate, shape or sculpt news or editorial content; and sharing agreements among licensees, such as local news sharing and shared services agreements. The FCC also proposes moving the stations’ existing political files online. As then-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps noted at the time of the proposal,

“The Supreme Court articulated in its Citizens United decision that transparency is a vital counter-balance to the perceived influence of corporations in the campaign process. Opaque and misleading information is not what democracy thrives on. We are not well-served when those who are attempting to manipulate our political dialogue and determine election outcomes can disguise themselves and hide behind misleading names. If a group calling itself “Citizens for Purple Mountain Majesties” is in reality the mouthpiece of a special interest that is refusing to clean up a toxic dump or is pouring pollution into the Great Lakes, don’t citizens have a right—yes, I said “a right”—to know that?”

In January, former FCC staffer Steven Waldman noted broadcasters opposition to the proposal. He wrote: “Local television stations have now rallied against the key elements of the Federal Communications Commission’s media transparency proposal, which would require broadcasters to move their “public inspection files” out of their filing cabinets and onto the Internet. The surprising hostility from TV stations—news organizations—to this transparency plan raises a broader question: Do broadcasters believe that they even have “public interest obligations” anymore? Judging from some of the unintentionally hilarious comments they submitted to the FCC docket, they enthusiastically embrace the concept as long as it remains completely devoid of meaning.”

This week, TVNewsCheck’s Harry Jessell answered for broadcasters saying -- Do broadcasters believe that they even have “public interest obligations” anymore? “Yes, but only if broadcasters get to decide what the public interest is just as all other media do. They don't need or want guidance from Washington. The day is long past when content regulation can be justified on one segment of a TV medium that now also includes cable, satellite and the Internet.” He argues that “TV stations are perfectly transparent. If you want to know what a station is doing or not doing to serve the public interest, however you want to define it, all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch. It's all right there on the screen. No secrets.”

The crux of the matter, for Jessell, is quotas.

“What [Waldman] and other backers of the disclosure rules want is not transparency. What they want are statistics. They want to be able to state authoritatively that TV stations on average devote just X% of their air time to covering news or local public affairs or some other type of programming they believe is in the public interest. Of course, no matter what X is, it's probably not going to be enough for them. So, then all it takes is the right mix of FCC commissioners to say that in order for a station to have a expectation of license renewal, it must air X+10% or X+20% of local public affairs. In effect, the FCC will have set a quota. Stations that ignore it may not lose their license (that rarely happens), but they may not be able to sell it when the time comes. That's a powerful enforcement mechanism. It's why every broadcaster I know diligently complies with the children's programming quota. A quota is nothing but a mandate. It's the federal government telling stations what programming they must air, and that slams right into broadcasters' First Amendment rights.”

Executives from News Corporation, NBCUniversal, the Walt Disney Company and the National Association of Broadcasters met with officials at the FCC this week to express their displeasure at proposed public interest rules. The executives argued that by posting political ad information in their “public files” and posting those files online, “[C]ompetitors in the market and commercial advertisers may anonymously glean highly sensitive pricing data, which, by law, will represent the lowest rates charged by the station to its most favored commercial advertisers,” adding that they were “[O]pen to discussing other options for keeping sensitive rate information out of the online public file.”

Free Press is one of many groups fighting to for the disclosure requirements. [Editors note: so is the Benton Foundation as a member of the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition.] In a Huffington Post op-ed, Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron writes, “This is a tale of the vastly powerful but sniveling giants who control your TV, dictate much of our political discourse and get rich doing it -- all while evading even the most basic forms of public accountability. This isn't just another reality show -- it's the reality of what's airing on every local TV station. And as far as station owners and their lobbyists are concerned, their business is none of yours.”

Free Press staffer Timothy Karr wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune The FCC “has asked broadcasters to consider making the political advertising information in their "public files" available online. That's a start. By doing this, broadcasters can help viewers understand the powerful financial interests that dominate the political landscape in 2012. But voters would also benefit from more television news stories on election-year issues and campaigns. By investing some of their election-year profits in comprehensive coverage, stations can return to the community the information many need to better engage with democracy.”

The groups fighting for broadcasters’ disclosure requirements face a steep climb. MapLight reports that interest groups representing TV and radio stations that benefit financially from political ads have also contributed millions to the campaigns of members of Congress:

  • Members of the U.S. Senate received a total of $2,043,666 from interest groups representing Commercial TV & Radio Stations, with $383,423 coming from the National Association of Broadcasters and its employees (July 1, 2005 – June 30, 2011).
  • Members of the U.S. House of Representatives received a total of $1,495,325 from interest groups representing Commercial TV & Radio Stations, with $549,450 coming from the National Association of Broadcasters and its employees (July 1, 2009 – June 30, 2011).

In the midst of this proceeding, the FCC is also seeking partners to examine the critical information needs of the American public. The FCC seeks proposals to examine:

  • how Americans meet their critical information needs;
  • how the media ecosystem operates to address critical information needs; and
  • what barriers exist in providing content and services to address critical information needs.

The FCC is also soliciting suggestions for additional studies, such suggestions to be submitted not later than February 27, 2012. The FCC invites parties to submit specific descriptions of proposed studies, including well-defined performance metrics that relate to one or more of the following:

  • how Americans meet their critical information needs;
  • how the media ecosystem operates to address critical information needs; and
  • what barriers exist in providing content and services to address critical information needs.

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released some interesting data related to this on February 7. The public is interested in the 2012 election. For example, the 2012 presidential campaign was the public’s top story last week, closely followed by news about the economy. About a quarter (23%) say they followed news about the candidates for president most closely. But long-term declines in the number of people getting campaign news from such sources as local TV and network news have steepened, and even the number gathering campaign news online, which had nearly tripled between 2000 and 2008, has leveled off in 2012. The one constant over the course of the past four elections is the reach of cable news.

While much of the focus on “wireless” remains on iPhones and the latest new devices, we’re also keeping an eye on broadcasting and how broadcasters serve the public interest.

As always, we’ll see you in the Headlines.