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 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

Last week, House Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman John Dingell reportedly stated that he favored the return of the Fairness Doctrine, and couldn’t see why broadcasters would be opposed.  We’ve suggested reasons, here and here.  But the reports are that Congressman Dingell may try to move legislation to accomplish the return of the Doctrine later this year.

The Internet Radio Equality Act was introduced in the House of Representatives today, proposing several actions – most significantly the nullification of the decision of the Copyright Royalty Board raising royalty rates for the use of sound recordings by Internet radio stations.  Our summary of the decision and its aftermath can be found here.  In addition to nullifying the decision of the Board, the Act does the following:

  1. Changes the "willing buyer, willing seller" standard used to determine royalty rates for Internet radio to the "801(b)" standard – named after section 801(b) of the Copyright Act, which considers a variety of factors in determining royalties – factors including possible disruption to the industry of royalties, the maximization of the distribution of the copyrighted work to the public, the relative value of the contributions of the copyright holder and the service, and the determination of a fair rate of return to the copyright holder.  The 801(b) standard is the used for determining rates for satellite radio and digital cable radio.
  2. Establishes an interim royalty rate for 2006-2010 of  (at the choice of the webcaster) either .33 cents per Aggregate Tuning Hour of listening or 7.5% of the service’s revenues directly related to Internet radio
  3. For noncommercial radio, places the royalty determination into Section 118 of the Copyright Act, which is where other noncommercial royalties (including the royalty for ASCAP and BMI for over-the-air use of musical compositions) are found, using the standards set forth in that section; and
  4. Establishes a royalty for 2006-2010 for noncommercial entites at 150% of the fee that the service paid for the sound recording royalty during 2004.
  5. Requires three studies to be conducted after the initiation of the next royalty proceeding, that will be submitted to the Copyright Royalty Board for their consideration in that case.  One study, by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration ("NTIA"), would study the economic impact of royalties on the competitiveness of the Internet radio marketplace.  A second, to be conducted by the FCC, would study the impact of royalties on local programming, diversity of programming (including foreign language programming), and the competitive barriers to entry into the Internet radio market.  A final study, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, would provide information to the CRB on the impact of the royalties on public radio operators. 


Continue Reading Internet Radio Equality Act Introduced to Nullify Copyright Royalty Board Decision