How the FCC Can Negate Citizens United

October 29, 2010

Because of the widely unpopular Citizens United decision by the Roberts' Supreme Court, which held that corporate funding of campaign ads cannot be limited under the First Amendment, this 2010 midterm election cycle is seeing five times more outside spending than occurred in the last midterm.  As noted in Bill Mann's Huffington Post piece, the real beneficiaries of all that spending are broadcasters  (broadcasters who have a legal obligation to serve the public interest.) 

"The people who are making most -- over 90%, by most estimates -- of the money from all the obnoxious and ubiquitous ads this fall have names unfamiliar to most people: Belo, Young Broadcasting, Cox, Fisher Broadcasting, Media General. And big names, of course, like ABC, Tribune, Gannett, NBC Universal."

But there are a lot of other names which are unfamiliar to most people, names like "American Crossroads." "America's Families First Action Fund."  "American Action Network." "Commonsense Ten." (These, according to the Washington Post, are among the biggest special interest group midterm spenders.)

That leads me to question the value of the current idea in Washington that by merely "disclosing" who is funding campaign ads, voters will somehow be able to separate fact from fiction.  As Meredith McGeeHee notes on the Campaign Legal Center blog,
"Congress should take heed of the Supreme Court’s 8-to-1 ruling in Citizens United in favor of disclosure, stating that such disclosure is not only constitutional, but is the expected and indeed necessary counter-balance to the new corporate right to expend unlimited funds in US elections.

"Justice Kennedy’s 8-1 majority Opinion stated on this point: 'The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.

"This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.'”
The problem is that outside the Beltway, a majority of people who are watching local TV news peppered with campaign ads don’t even know who George Soros is.  Lindsay Lohan, yes, Dick Armey? Doubtful.  Really, just disclosing who paid for ads is no match for the magic of Madison Avenue Mad Men. 

So We the People are caught in a trap.  Elected officials spend 75% of their time doing what?  Fundraising.  Which means they are not spending their time doing the jobs we sent them to Washington to do.  Billions of dollars are being poured into candidates coffers – and you can bet special interest strings are attached.  And then – this is the kicker - most voters have no clue that televised ads can outright lie to voters.   (Yes, most people think that truth in advertising laws apply to political ads; they do not.)

Really, considering that broadcasters are only licensed if they serve the Public Interest, shouldn't the public be served somewhere in this equation?  Can't the FCC, as a condition of stations' licenses, require free airtime for debate or access to the publicly owned airwaves?

The answer is yes.  But as in every case of the public interest v the corporate line, it's an uphill battle.

McGeeHee said in an interview Wednesday that "an aggressive FCC, if it properly interprets public interest obligations, has enormous amounts of power to make broadcasts responsive to the political system."   But any FCC action would likely be challenged in court, and "the Roberts' Supreme Court, given Citizens United, will likely not look kindly at that.  Broadcasters will argue that this would essentially be the government controlling speech."

Well, who is controlling speech now?  Giant corporations who are in bed with broadcasters who, rather than serving the public interest, think they have a license to print money.  According to a 2002 FCC study, TV broadcasters are earning as much as 46 percent profits.   Although they argue
otherwise, they can provide real public service at election time and keep shareholders happy also.

Isn't it time the controlling agency, the FCC, defines and enforces the public interest obligations the broadcasters are mandated to follow?  Isn't it time for the public to get real free speech over their own airwaves?

And wouldn't Free Airtime essentially negate Citizens United?

President Obama, it's your FCC.  Make it work.

NPR Gets it Right!

October 22, 2010

Last week, after it was made public that NPR had ordered its reporters not to attend any political rallies, including the upcoming John Stewart "Rally to Restore Sanity," my inbox was filled with disgust from liberals.  This rule, they felt, violated the reporters' right to free speech.

This week, after NPR dismissed Juan Williams for giving his opinion on Fox News regarding Muslims, my inbox is filled with disgust from Conservatives.  They too believe that NPR is violating its former reporter Williams' right to free speech.  (Interesting to note that upon Williams' firing, Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint immediately started calling for federal defunding of NPR; they were silent after the earlier NPR missive.)

Both the liberals and the conservatives are missing the point.  National Public Radio is taking the correct stand to preserve journalism.  Reporters have their own opinions and biases, of course; we all do.  But if one is going to be an analyst for one of the largest and most respected news organizations in the country, it is important to remain emotionally detached and neutral.   It means analyzing news, not offering personal opinions in the public arena - of any kind, at any time.  Williams clearly crossed that line, and had been forewarned by NPR for years about so doing.

So far, NPR is the only news organization which has made this fundamental stand for journalism.  They deserve our support.

Full Disclosure:  I worked with Sacramento's NPR station, "Capital Public Radio" for six years until I embarked on making a documentary film that blows the whistle on broadcasting, "Broadcast Blues."   Station management was always very careful to present both sides of the story and to follow CPB guidelines for fairness and equal time. (Because NPR receives public funding, they are required to follow rules very similar to the old Fairness Doctrine - see story below.)  At this point, I do not believe NPR would allow me to report for them;  I clearly have a point of view.

And that's okay.  Facts are facts, opinions are opinions (although mine are at least based in fact.) But news organizations do their audience a public service by building a clear firewall between the two.

Bravo to NPR for taking the correct stand.  Let's hope more do.

Great NYTimes article on this topic:

Why Did Donna Brazile Use the F-word in Oprah's Magazine?

October 16, 2010

In the October issue of O magazine, the DCCC's Donna Brazile did the unthinkable:  she used the "F" word - in Oprah Winfrey's publication, no less.  Eyebrows are being raised across the political spectrum.

Okay, not that "F" word, but one that is far more controversial:  Brazile says her top priority is to bring back the "Fairness Doctrine." She says she'd like to require "holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced fashion."

To the uninitiated, bringing Fairness to the public airwaves – radio and TV - is a no-brainer.  But to Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and an army of 550,000 amassed to keep the nation's radio airwaves under "Conservative" control, this could be a call to arms.  Is it possible that the Democratic establishment is finally ready for a fight to take control of their message?

Okay, time for a bit of history. 

Our elders will remember a time when radio was America's number one source of news and information.   And they remember being horrified at how Tokyo Rose and our enemies used the radio to promote hate and propaganda. 

So they watched as the Federal Communications Commission and radio station owners worked together to prevent propaganda from ever being broadcast in these United States of America.  This coaltion of government and business put the "Fairness Doctrine" in place to ensure a healthy, reasoned discourse so critical to our democracy. 

The thing is, radio is still America's number one source of news and information.   . More people listen to radio than watch television, read newspapers, or go online.   Nearly fifty million people in the U.S. listen to talk radio.

But Fairness?  Equal Time? Reasoned discourse?  Those went out the window in 1987 with – drumroll, please – President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was, of course, a consummate media man.  Not simply the star of B movies like "Bedtime for Bonzo," Reagan also hosted television's "GE Theater."  The so-called "Great Communicator" then went on to become President of the Screen Actors Guild, profiting from programs while robbing actors of royalties.  

More than any president before or since, Reagan understood the power of TV and radio.  So it's no coincidence that President Ronald Reagan, by fiat, eliminated fairness in broadcasting.  He knew what would happen if one side – his side – could control the message. 

(It's interesting to note that after Reagan's action, both houses of Congress immediately passed bills – co-sponsored by Newt Gingrich - to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.  But both Reagan and George Bush the First vetoed those bills.  For the 2009 documentary film I made on this topic, "Broadcast Blues," Gingrich refused to answer questions about why he's changed his tune.  No great surprise: put simply, Gingrich must understand that Republicans can win elections only if they can control Radio.) 

And control it they do, and not just by promoting unfair one-sided propaganda and hate to the exclusion of all other ideas (and facts.)  In 1996, Republicans passed an Act of Congress so a few pro-GOP corporations could own all the nation's radio stations to spread their lies.   By 2007, according to a Free Press /Center for American Progress study, 90% of talk radio was conservative; that study was done before the downfall of Air America Radio, so it's likely that today 95% of the country has no opportunity to hear a progressive or Democratic message.   

Think about that.  Just five percent of the nation can hear the Democratic message on the most dominant form of media in the country.  Small wonder that Democrats have been complaining they can't get their message out; they don’t have access to the microphones. 

This paradigm is not about ratings.  I've debunked that theory  both in Broadcast Blues and McClatchy's Sacramento Bee, only to draw the ire of Rush Limbaugh.  (Wish I had his microphone.)  And it is not accidental.  According to former right wing author turned conservative misinformation critic David Brock of Media Matters, the "Conservative Movement" is lying to the country intentionally.  

It's created a culture shift, especially in midwestern and Blue Dog states.  For example, in what was once Gephardt country, former Missouri Democrats turned Republican now hush progressive views in local meetings from AA to the PTA.   The fictional oral history promoted by Talk Radio has turned into group think;  group think has turned into Tea Parties. 

So why is Brazile starting to talk about the Fairness Doctrine? 

Perhaps because there are only three ways to restore true fairness and balance to the publicly owned radio airwaves. 

First, local communities could challenge stations' licenses through the FCC.  There is a movement going on to do just that,  but it's not likely to work on issues of talk radio, at least not yet.

Congress could rewrite the 1996 Telecommunications Act  so persons – corporate or real -  can own only 40 stations nationwide, as they did in 1995, rather than 1200, as they can today.  Any bets on that happening, especially if Republicans take control of Congress? 

Or President Obama could take a cue from the Reagan administration and bring back elements of the Fairness Doctrine:  Equal Time, no personal attacks, free airtime for political candidates, local community programming.  Imagine what that would do for democracy.  (Imagine the outcry from the Conservative Elite!  That's what scaring Dems so.)

One thing is certain:  We the People are ready to do battle on this issue.

Democrats, are you?

Shameless plug:  I'm coordinating a new effort to empower communities to hold local radio and TV stations accountable by challenging their licenses.  Please vote here to bring this session to Free Press' National Media Reform Conference!

Thank You for Voting for Real Media Reform!

Thanks to you, my suggested session for the Free Press National Media Reform Conference, "Empowering Local Communities by Holding the FCC Accountable" received the most votes in the competition in the Politics and Policy track!  This means it is very likely that we will be holding this panel, which is the first step to reminding the FCC who they work for:  We the People. 
     We will focus on creating a national, managed, publicized means of challenging broadcasters' licenses nationwide, working with existing regional media reform groups and Community TV and Radio.  It will be a brainstorming session to bring interested parties and funders together to create a new FCC Empowerment Project which will truly put the Public Interest back ahead of the corporate interest in broadcasting.
     We will use the case of the Sacramento Entercom station which killed a mother of three in a reckless water drinking contest as the initial case; that will garner nationwide publicity and will pressure the FCC to act in removing KDND's license. 
     The FCC has ignored We the People for long enough; it is time to get their attention on this critical issue of broadcast licenses.  Don't forget, stations get licenses for free - only if they serve the Public Interest. 
     Please see the Murder by Radio story - below on this blog - to learn why this case is so important. 
The full list of proposed sessions can be found here, see what other sessions are likely to be in the April Conference:

We the People are Taking the Media Back!