Elections, Objections, and SNL Host Selections

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at www.benton.org/user/register

Robbie's Round-Up (November 2-6, 2015)

GOP Candidates Vs. Debate Moderators
This week saw a flurry of news regarding the 2016 presidential race, raising new questions about the relationship between presidential candidates and the media. First, the debate.

On October 28, the top-polling Republican presidential candidates faced off during a debate on cable channel CNBC. The biggest news did not relate to issues, however, but rather the CNBC moderators. As James Poniewozik wrote for the New York Times, “The debate quickly became candidates vs. CNBC. The network lost in a rout.” Notably, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) attacked media bias directly. When asked about raising the debt limit, Sen Cruz responded by saying, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media…This is not a cage match...How about talking about the substantive issues.” Expect more attacks on the media because, as political consultant Frank Luntz tweeted, “Ted Cruz’s focus group dials hits 98 with his attack on media bias. That’s the highest score we’ve ever measured. EVER.”

In response to perceived “Gotcha” questions from the CNBC moderators, the Republican National Committee announced that it was suspending its partnership with NBC News for an upcoming presidential debate in February. Furthermore, several GOP campaigns are drawing up demands for the media organizations sponsoring the debates during the rest of the nominating season. Some have called this thinking into question, as polls show the debates are not causing any significant damage to candidates’ reputations with political independents, and are beneficial in helping gain awareness of more GOP candidates and their positions.

Why Does This Matter?
The tension between GOP candidates and debate moderators indicates a shift in power between candidates and the media, with journalistic integrity all the more muddled by networks experiencing some of their highest-rated programming. The question becomes: who needs each other more, the candidates or the networks? Furthermore, with GOP candidates considering moving debates away from conventional outlets, future moderators may feel pressure to pull their punches. In an editorial, the Washington Post described the warning by GOP candidates of not participating in future debates as a threat. “Responsible journalists will ignore it.”

Trump, SNL, and Equal Time
Donald Trump will presumably take the stage to host "Saturday Night Live" this weekend on November 7. The appearance earns a space in the Round-Up for two reasons: 1) the Federal Communications Commission’s “equal opportunity” rule, and 2) the backlash SNL is getting from the Hispanic community.

Equal Opportunity Rules
Under Section 315 of the Communications Act, legally qualified candidates have a right, under certain conditions, to request “equal opportunities” when their opponents appear on the air. As a result, Trump’s appearance on SNL will be timed by regulators at the FCC, as the appearance could be used to guarantee equal time on local NBC stations for Trump's rivals in the Republican presidential primaries.

Although candidates can't take advantage of the equal opportunity regulation when their competitors are mentioned on news segments or appear in news interviews, they can use it when it comes to other broadcast shows, which SNL happens to be.

Given the numerous news outlets presidential candidates have to communicate their message, some argue the FCC’s equal time regulation is outdated, and is more likely to chill debate, rather than foster it. For an in depth analysis on the FCC’s equal time rules, see Andy Schwartzman’s piece, “Will Rick Santorum Be The Next Host Of Saturday Night Live?” (Also located at the bottom of this Round-Up, in our ICYMI section)

Hispanic Community Backlash
Trump’s SNL appearance has also sparked controversy with Hispanic and pro-immigration groups, who have called on SNL to rescind the invitation. The groups have cited comments by Trump calling many Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. The National Hispanic Media Coalition and over a dozen other Latino organizations gathered outside the SNL studio on Nov 4 and delivered over 500,000 signatures calling on NBCUniversal to cancel Trump’s involvement. Additionally, numerous Hispanic lawmakers called for SNL to drop Trump as host, using the twitter hashtag #DumpTrumpOnSNL. Rep Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) said, “When a TV personality calls Mexicans and Latinos criminals and rapists, a corporate network should not give him 90 minutes of free airtime in an entertainment venue without his first apologizing to the American people.” Rep Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) wrote an op-ed for Time, claiming that SNL is fanning the flames of hatred.

Why Does This Matter?
The controversy surrounding Trump’s SNL appearance serves as a gateway into the debates around public interest priorities in the 2016 election. Although NBC and its affiliates have the right to choose who gets air time, that freedom also comes with responsibility. When Hillary Clinton appeared on SNL earlier this year, her Democratic opponents had the opportunity to apply for equal exposure. The same holds true for Trump’s planned longer appearance. And, in addition, NBC and the stations must answer for giving a platform to a candidate that has statements that many find offensive. Television station owners are awarded use of a public resource – the airwaves – and so agree to operate in the public interest.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

Events Calendar for the Week of Nov 9-13, 2015

ICYMI From Benton

By Robbie McBeath.