There is a new sheriff at the FCC, and it looks like Tom Wheeler is here to protect the townspeople, not the outlaws.
As new chair, Wheeler explained in a statement last Thursday, "Protecting Television Consumers by Protecting Competition," the FCC is required by law to assess its media ownership rules every four years to determine if they need to be modified to serve the public interest. His predecessor, Julius Genachowski, ignored that law completely, meaning it's been six years since a review has been completed. But Wheeler seems to be taking this responsibility seriously, and states, "motivated by evidence that our rules protecting competition, diversity and localism have been circumvented, we will consider some changes to other Commission rules to enforce existing rules."
We haven't heard an FCC chairman talk about enforcing rules since, well, since well before this writer started paying attention back in 1987.
Note Wheeler's willingness to close the "Joint Services Agreement" loophole, which has allowed two TV stations in one town to be operated, if not owned, by the same owner. (TV viewers experience this when they watch the same news and reporters on two different channels in their towns.) He is also looking at local radio and TV ownership rules, which I have written about at length before, as well as the current prohibition on the cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations.
If broadcast station owners held the same standards of fairness and duty to the public interest they did at the onset of broadcasting, we wouldn't need all these rules. But these times, they are a changing, and both profit and politics too often trumps the public interest.
This can best be seen in the state of Wisconsin.
Years ago, the FCC granted Journal Communications a special waiver to own TV station WTMJ-4 and radio stations WTMJ AM (a 50,000 watt powerhouse,) and 14,000 watt WLWK-FM, plus the Journal Sentinel newspaper, the region's only daily. The FCC decided to grant Journal Communications the waiver because Journal made the case that the newspaper would be in a separate building, and thus not subject to cross-pollination from its other "news" sources.
Since then, Wisconsin Democrats have been complaining that "conservative" corporate giants have unfairly promoted Republican candidates in the local newspaper and on the radio for years, and Republican officeholders admit -- and even publicly brag -- about how talk radio wins them elections: "Scott Walker gives a lot of credit to Milwaukee and Madison conservative talk radio for his election both as Milwaukee county executive and as governor."
So Milwaukee Democrats (through my non-profit project Media Action Center) filed a complaint and Petition to Deny WTMJ's license in 2012 at the FCC. I have written about this before, but in short, MAC proves that Journal's WTMJ-AM "conservative" talk radio shows donated about a half a million dollars in airtime to get Scott Walker re-elected during his recall campaign, but would not allow Democratic supporters of his opponent Tom Barrett on the shows at all.
There is an FCC rule against this kind of political manipulation of our airwaves called the Zapple Doctrine.
Despite the Constitutional implications of the case, the story has never been covered in the pages of the Sentinel (although a story did appear in a piece on the JSOnline entertainment blog.)
Attorneys for Journal Communication make the case they can bend those common sense rules because their talk show hosts, Jeff Wagner and Charlie Sykes are not entertainers, but rather "bonafide news" providers.
Now the Journal Communications machine is blurring the lines between news, opinion, and politics still further. Former Journal reporter Dominique Paul Noth writes:
"Right Wisconsin, a website requiring paid subscription and full of his (Sykes) musings and those of others who claim journalistic credentials, including several right-wing bloggers JS has hired, was started by him to spread his journalism credentials and is actually owned by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Journal Communications, moving from mere employer of an entertainer to conspirator in right-wing journalistic thematics."
The FCC must determine the answer as to what the term "bonafide news" really means.
The agency's recent track record on that issue has been spotty. Let's look at another recent FCC decision involving a Wisconsin based news service which reflects the upside down world over which the agency presides about what is and is not "news."
Many of us who tune into hourly newscasts on the radio will hear Fox News Radio or SRN News. Both offer news items which favor a conservative point of view; together they are paid to run on about 2100 radio stations nationwide.
Some of us may hear the Worker's Independent News Service, which provides factual news stories from a labor point of view; they are aired on about 200 stations nationwide, but there is a catch: instead of commercial stations paying WIN for reports, WIN must pay the stations to be heard.
Says Frank Emspak, Executive Producer at WIN, "For whatever reasons, commercial broadcasters have decided that conservative oriented newscasts, or newscasts that focus on businesses or business interests are "news." But most commercial broadcasters have also decided that newscasts that focus on unions, union interests or working people are not "news." The consequences are that newscasts like ours must pay broadcasters for the time."
As a result, Worker's Independent News spots are not subsidized by the stations' sales forces; it must sell its own advertising spots. Says Emspak, "When broadcasters decide that content they like is "news," they sell the ads, they raise the money and they characterize the content they like as "news."
It get worse: because WIN must pay broadcasters for time, the FCC requires stations to tell the listeners that WIN is a paid "advertisement," not "news," which undermines its credibility. The FCC just levied a hefty $44,000 fine against Chicago station WLS for failing to label WIN's factual news stories as "paid advertisements."
So, if the right wing Journal Communications gets its way at the FCC, WTMJ's Charlie Sykes (and by extension, Rush Limbaugh) will be considered "bonafide news" providers, but the Workers Independent News Service, which hires real reporters to ferret out facts for real news stories, will not.
It is an upside down world, but in conclusion, the FCC has some golden opportunities here to stand up for the public interest.
The agency could rescind the special newspaper/ broadcast ownership waiver it gave to Journal Communications, (and others, like Tribune Company's ownership of the LA Times and KTLA-TV,) thus sending the message that it recognizes having news content produced for Radio, TV and the only newspaper in one city by one corporation puts too much information control into the hands of too few.
The FCC could yank the broadcasting license of WTMJ-AM radio for deliberately using our public airwaves as a propaganda tool for its favored political party.
The FCC could make a clear statement that talk radio is not the same as bonafide news. (Sign this petition to "Tell the FCC: Talk Radio is NOT Bonafide News.")
The FCC could change its rules preventing stations from labeling legitimate news organizations as "advertisements," just because they are forced to pay stations to be heard at all.
Should the FCC make any one of these potential actions, it would send a shudder through the broadcast news industry, and would have more impact than a dozen recently abandoned "Multi-market Study of Critical Information Needs" [PDF] studies ever could.
Will the FCC really act? At least its chair has started a conversation. Let's keep it going.