With much of the media world celebrating the life of Walter Cronkite this weekend, we have to wonder what he would have thought about press reports that the FCC is considering the commencement of a proceeding to investigate the status of broadcast journalism – assessing its quality, determining whether the Internet and other new sources are making up for any quality that is lost, and potentially deciding to mandate specific amounts of news coverage by broadcast stations. That surprising story about a planned FCC Notice of Inquiry on the state of broadcast journalism was reported in an an online report picked up by the broadcast trade press last week.  And even if that story is not true, concerns about the government’s intrusion into a broadcaster’s coverage of controversial issues arise from the recent Congressional committee action voting down a bill that would ban the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.  In what should have been a symbolic embrace of the First Amendment (symbolic as, in the last 6 weeks, four of the FCC Commissioners or Commissioners-to-be disavowed any interest in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine in their confirmation hearings ), the defeat of the bill raises questions as to whether someone has an agenda to resurrect the government’s role in assessing broadcast media coverage of controversial issues.  In reading one of the many stories of the life of Cronkite (here, at page 3), we were stuck with the contrast between these actions, and the actions of Mr. Cronkite to address controversial issues – regardless of the FCC implications.  One anecdote related his questioning of John Kennedy about his religion when Kennedy thought that topic off limits, even in light of the potential president’s veiled threat that, when he took office, he would be appointing the FCC who would be regulating CBS.  Do we really want the FCC to have that power to assess what journalism is good, or what opinions each station must air to ensure "fairness"?

In reviewing the many FCC Fairness Doctrine claims that CBS faced in the Cronkite era, we are struck with the amount of time and money that must have been spent in defending its coverage against critics from both the right and the left.  We also found one particularly relevant quote from Mr. Cronkite himself: 

That brings me to what I consider the greatest threat to freedom of information: the Government licensing of broadcasting. Broadcast news today is not free. Because it is operated by an industry that is beholden to the Government for its right to exist, its freedom has been curtailed by fiat, by assumption, and by intimidation and harassment. 

 In the last 20 years, since Mr. Cronkite’s retirement as the CBS anchor, the FCC has steadily moved away from the role that he feared.  Yet with these recent actions, one wonders if there are some in government now trying to prove Mr. Cronkite’s concerns correct.


Continue Reading The Potential for the Return of the Fariness Doctrine and the FCC’s Assessment of the Quality of Broadcast News – What Would Walter Cronkite Think?

Last week, we wrote about how the Fairness Doctrine was applied before it was declared unconstitutional by the FCC in the late 1980s. When we wrote that entry, it seemed as if the whole battle over whether or not it would be reinstated was a tempest in a teapot. Conservative commentators were fretting over the re-imposition, while liberals were complaining that the conservatives were making up issues. But what a difference a week makes.

Perhaps it is the verbal jousting that is going on between the political parties over the influence of Rush Limbaugh that has reignited the talk of the return of the Doctrine, but this week it has surprisingly been back on the front burner  – in force. Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan said on a radio show that the positions taken by talk radio were unfair and unbalanced and that “fairness” shouldn’t be too much to ask (listen to her on-air remarks) . When prompted by the host as to whether there would be Congressional hearings or legislation, the Senator said that it would certainly be something that Congress would consider.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine (Part 2) – Will It Return? And What’s Wrong With Fairness?

Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry.  Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion).  Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.  What’s all the fuss about anyway?

To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not.  We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issuesEssentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance.  The Fairness Doctrine never required "equal time" in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute for minute basis.  In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them.  How that was done was in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine Back in the News (Part 1) – What’s It all About?

Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

In a Sunday column, George Will revisited conservative commentators’ biggest fear – the return of the Fairness Doctrine.  Will went into depth on the history of the doctrine, the growth in the number of broadcast outlets in recent years, and growth in talk programming since the doctrine was abolished, all to argue against its

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama delivered his first weekly radio address since he was elected President.  The broadcast made news, not only for its content, but also because it was streamed on the Internet, particularly on You Tube, but also retransmitted on many other websites.  The fact that the Internet makes such transmissions not only possible, but so easy and so widely available demonstrates one of many reasons why all the worry about the return of the Fairness Doctrine is unwarranted.  With access to so many diverse opinions not only on the radio but also through all of the new technologies, why should the government care that one radio station may not cover all sides of a controversial issue?  If one station does not put on a strongly held viewpoint on an important issue, you can bet that someone who holds that viewpoint will find some way to transmit it to others. 

The return of the Fairness Doctrine has been the great invisible monster in the room since the election – with many commentators, particularly conservative ones, worrying that the Democratic Congress will attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.  Off-hand comments such as those made by Senator Schumer on Fox News, have fueled this speculation, even though the Obama campaign has specifically rejected such a return.  The Fairness Doctrine is one grounded in scarcity of the electronic spectrum – from the fear that if one side of an issue was allowed to dominate one of the few means of communicating with the population of a community, it would effectively be able to stifle the ability of those with contrasting viewpoints to get their message out.   But, to use a phrase that is becoming increasingly popular – that thinking is so 20th Century.


Continue Reading Obama’s Radio Address is Streamed on the Internet – Demonstrating Why There Need Not Be Any Return of the Fairness Doctrine

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.


Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time

In the last few days before the Super Tuesday series of presidential primaries, efforts are being made across the political spectrum to convince voters to vote for or against the remaining candidates.  With Obama buying Super Bowl ads in many markets, Clinton planning a one-hour program on the Hallmark Channel the night before the primaries, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio host attacking McCain, and third-party interest groups and unions running ads supporting or attacking various candidates, a casual observer, looking at this media blitz, may wonder how all these efforts work under the rules and laws governing the FCC and political broadcasting.

For instance, sitting here watching the Super Bowl, I just watched a half-time ad for Barack Obama.  Did the  Obama campaign spring for one of those million dollar Super Bowl ads that we all read about?  Probably not.  It appears, according to press reports, that instead of buying a national ad in the Fox network coverage, the campaign purchased local ads in certain media markets.  And with reasonable access requirements under the Communications Act and FCC rules, he could insist that his commercial get access to the program as all Federal candidates have a right of reasoanble access to all classes and dayparts of station programming.  Moreover, the spot would have to be sold at lowest unit rates.  While those rates are not the rates that an advertiser would pay for a spot on a typical early Sunday evening on a Fox program, they still would be as low as any other advertiser would pay for a similar ad aired during the game.  In this case, by buying on local stations, at lowest unit rates, his campaign apparently made the calculation that it could afford the cost, and that the exposure made it not a bad deal.


Continue Reading The Run-Up to Super Tuesday – Rush, the Super Bowl, Union Ads and an Hour on the Hallmark Channel

The FCC has taken the unusual step of issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability, i.e. an announcement that it has fined a broadcaster, against two TV station owners for failing to provide a sponsorship identification for political material sponsored by another Federal agency–the Department of Education ("DOE").  The proposed fines for these two broadcasters totaled over $70,000.  In connection with the same broadcasts, the Commission also issued a citation against the producer of the programs for failing to include a disclosure of the sponsor of the programs, warning that company that it would be fined if it were to engage in such activity in the future, even though the entity was not an FCC licensee.  These actions demonstrate the concern of the Commission over programs that attempt to influence the public, particularly those dealing with controversial issues of public importance, where those who have paid to do the convincing are not evident to the public.

These cases all stem from programs associated with conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid by DOE to promote the controversial No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLBA") supported by the current administration.  He did so on two television programs:  his own show, titled "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" and on "America’s Black Forum," where he appeared as a guest.  These shows were aired by various television stations without any sponsorship identification to indicate that Williams was paid by DOE to promote NCLBA on the air.

In one case, the television broadcaster received $100 per broadcast for airing Right Side, but failed to reveal that it had received any consideration.  The broadcaster claimed that the consideration received was "nominal," which is generally an exception to the sponsorship ID requirement.  However, the FCC noted that the exception for "nominal" consideration applies only to "service or property" and not to "money," holding that receipt of any money, even if only a small sum, triggers the requirement for sponsorship identification.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Fines for Political Sponsorship ID Violations