Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Is fairness a US doctrine?

If you define doctrine as a concept, idea, theory or set of principles, it is.

If you define doctrine as a regulation or rule, not so much.

There's a great clamor over the possibility of the US Federal Communications Commission re-creating something called the Fairness Doctrine - hysterically renamed the Equal Time Rule by opponents, which it is not.

Here's the more detailed history of the Fairness Doctrine.

Basically it gives the FCC the power to check with local broadcasters periodically to make certain real issues - issues that directly affect you and your local community - are covered by your local stations. More that there is an outlet for healthy debate about those subjects, not presenting just one point of view.

Not at the same time, not equal time, not presenting both sides back to back, but having other points of view presented at some time during the broadcast programming.

The public airwaves - so-called "free" airwaves supported by commercials - stations you can receive without cable or satellite dishes belong to the citizens of the United States of America.

The FCC grants a license to individuals and companies to broadcast programs in the "public interest, convenience and necessity."

Networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX offer news and entertainment programs to local licensees. The local station is ultimately responsible for every second of everything it airs. That's why local station managers can refuse to air network programs it doesn't like, agree with or feels is inappropriate for the community for which it broadcasts. By definition, networks don't focus on local issues of your community.

In the industry, the "joke" is that the FCC license is not seen as a means to inform and empower local viewers, but a license to make money for its owners without regard for viewers and listeners.

I worked in radio and television news when the Fairness Doctrine was in place, and our guidelines were to make sure that both sides were aired some time in our broadcast schedule. Again, not at the same time, not including equal time or in the same time period, back to back, but at some time during our programming schedule.

The way the stations determined what issues most concerned the community was to interview community leaders about the subjects they believed were of most concern to them and their groups and that needed to be brought to the community's attention.

I can assure you that all the time taken to interview these people and determine what they believed were of the greatest concern was pretty much a waste of time. Broadcasters most frequently paid lip service, if that, to those issues. If not disheartened, the leaders were angered by the failure of broadcasters to respond to what they clearly and sometimes urgently felt needed attention - particularly race relations.

Groups that are under-represented, misrepresented or neglected altogether would request more coverage; people suffering from the malfeasance or misfeasance of industry or government would report their concerns as well.

The largest number of complaints the FCC receives is not from people concerned that our nation is under- or inadequately informed, hurting our democratic republic from having an educated voting base; not from people concerned about the excessive violent content, including promotions for violent programs in non-violent programs -- but from people complaining about foul language and what they consider inappropriate sexual content.

An FCC license, even without the Fairness Doctrine, still says that that license is granted to the owner for the highest good of the public's interest, convenience and necessity. But when it was in place, stations would feature community issues on extremely low rated chat shows with no production values at strange hours - usually early Sunday mornings - just to show the FCC that the station had, indeed, "covered" the issues.

While it wasn't much, it was at least something. Some stations continue this practice.

In 1987 courts tossed the Fairness Doctrine, maintaining that the result of no Fairness Doctrine would be a more vigorous debate on issues important to the communities. I'm not certain how they arrived at that conclusion, given that newspapers were actually covering local issues and most broadcast stations would take their lead to cover local stories. How and why would the courts believe that stations would do more without even the suggestion of fair coverage?

It has always baffled me, because it had the exact opposite result.

Local radio stations and some television stations were affected immediately. The first thing to go: local news. Because it meant more profits by owners if they don't have to pay for local reporters and take those minutes away from more music more often.

In the 1980's, I worked as an assistant news director, commentator and occasional reporter for major stories for a local "free" station, KCPQ-TV (FOX/CNN) Seattle/Tacoma market.

Despite great and growing ratings, we walked into work one Monday morning in June ... to find the entire newsroom gutted.

Gutted. All the equipment and our personal belongings had been removed. The news program was arbitrarily dumped by its owner - who also owned stations in other markets - to make more money from showing cheap movies during the time slot instead of having to pay a news staff.

Sure, we could make money for the station, but nothing like the bucks they could rake in from showing cheap movies and charging businesses high prime time advertising rates. Plus they had "proof" of high ratings in the time slot from our work.

There was no concern whatsoever for the welfare of the community or us. I was lucky to have a strong contract, and got paid every cent I was owed from it (they tried to buy me out for less by paying me with one big check and I said no).

While news reports claimed the station was helping the rest of the staff find jobs - truth is they only provided a telephone, phone book and want-ads.

With a Fairness Doctrine, radio and TV stations at least believed presenting local news was a responsibility they had to their community, now a station can be sold to a national owner - one that sends the same music or other programming to many stations at once (there's no longer a limit to the number of stations a person or company can own as long as it's not more than one in each market) throughout the nation.

Talk about saving money and making way more profits! No more local personalities!

The only "broadcast" employee needed in many stations is an engineer to keep the electronic programming running smoothly sent from a central source far away while inserting local commercials. Now that is something that remains local. Advertising.

I've often wondered why local advertisers don't inquire about local programming because the money they're spending isn't staying home - it's being sent back to corporate headquarters in another state.

Many conglomerates that own radio stations also own television stations and newspapers and magazines and film companies and book publishing companies.

So if an author's book gets picked up, they save money by giving him or her a fantastic fee for publishing, film making and broadcast rights, any ancillary products (CD's, DVD's, games), and other products that might be developed that may come from that author's work.

While it may seem like a lot of money in one chunk, it's far less than the author would receive if separate entertainment business negotiated separate contracts.

Fewer owners, like Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, who has become a US citizen, means fewer issues, voices and viewpoints are aired.

Murdoch is known for owning media with very conservative points of view to the exclusion of other viewpoints while hyping themselves as "fair and balanced."

Meanwhile, "back in the day," all news and chat radio stations started up because of the new lack of news presented by most stations, supposedly to fill the community need.

They turned out to be real cash cows because they only had to hire a few chat show personalities and local reporters since they relied mostly on network news sources and wire services.

Commercials were experienced by listeners as simply more talk, so programmers packed more of them into their air time than ever.

There have been attempts to feature spokespeople from "both sides" of an issue, but as you see and listen for yourself, the programs tend to call the same people all the time, not necessarily those who are the best spokespeople for their particular issue on either side.

Broadcast personalities who emerged in tabloid programs were outrageous, getting high ratings but from a large but narrow-interest group of people. Howard Stern, Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Donohue and a more tabloid Oprah Winfrey emerged as stars.

Winfrey went on to drop most tabloid content and become an internationally respected and revered broadcaster and international leader in her own right.

Conservative/right-wing talk shows with hosts like Rush Limbaugh emerged with good ratings - again with narrow-interest audiences.

Progressive or liberal radio talk show personalities such as Stephanie Miller, Al Franken and Thom Hartmann have emerged, also getting good ratings from narrow-interest audiences.

Miller is the #1 program in many markets she broadcasts.

Conservative broadcasters claim that there's no market for liberal talk show - that the free market dictates the public isn't interested in that format, but that is not true.

The truth is that there are so few owners of monolithic broadcast networks, most owned by people who only want to feature hosts with extremely conservative points of view, that they tend to be the only game in too many communities.

Where progressive programs are aired, they tend to flourish.

Air America is not the only progressive network, but while it took five years for conservative talk shows to get a money-making foothold, Air America has come out of financial difficulties in three.

If you're blessed with stations that feature local personalities in your community, appreciate them! I bet they're highly rated, too.

So before you believe propaganda and hysteria about a Fairness Doctrine - incorrectly called the Equal Time regulation, do some homework.

If we are to have a fairness doctrine - it needs to be reasonably created and mandated to foster healthy debate, not just the name-calling that plagues our airwaves now. And it needs to be enforced.

When it was in place, there was only the pressure on the broadcasters to be responsible to their communities without real enforcement of its mandates. But at least broadcast managers took it seriously enough to make contact with community leaders periodically, even if they took little action.

Absentee corporate owners are terrified that a new Fairness Doctrine would "force" them to pay money for local programming and staff - which would hurt their bottom line. That's why they're so adamantly against it. Your community's advertising dollars would have to be shared with - OH MY GOD! - YOU!

That is considered unAmerican by the right wing conservatives because they don't want to be told how to run their businesses and feel that a free market means everyone for him or herself. That if they do well - even though so many corporations have a bazillion tax shelters - the community somehow does well, too.


Problem is, they're making all their narrow-casting money off the backs of our citizen-owned airwaves. And legally, they can't consider their business private property or have the right to take our publicly owned airwaves and do whatever they wish without considering the public's interest, convenience or necessity first.

But they want to and try to and the government has all too often allowed them to succeed in hijacking our means of information, education and entertainment in the name of "free market" business.

The FCC is holding hearings in some communities now - if you're interested in contacting them about this, or other issues, you can do it here.

With this background, Seattle Times editorial writer Ryan Blethen wrote a brief editorial I believe you'll find interesting and informative.

Blethen's family owns majority interest in The Seattle Times, one of the few locally-owned media outlets in the US.

In the name of full disclosure, I worked for The Seattle Times 1990-1992 as its ombudsman/Reader Advocate; writing a weekly column on various media subjects which you can read in The Seattle Times archives starting here - there are several pages listing my columns.

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