Rejoice, FCC Kills Fairness Doctrine

media in crisisIt starts with the understanding that We the People legally own the frequencies over which TV and Radio stations broadcast. There are only a few such frequencies in any given community, and it is their scarcity which makes broadcasting unique and subject to government oversight. As stated last month in a Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision,

We agree with the FCC that the rules do not violate the First Amendment because they are rationally related to substantial government interests in promoting competition and protecting viewpoint diversity.

People need to understand that broadcasters only receive licenses to broadcast IF they “serve the public interest.” Those licenses only come up for renewal once every eight years. It happens that those licenses are coming up on the radio side on a rotating basis across the country starting now through July 2014; on the TV side, they come up for renewal starting September 2012 through July 2015.

If stations clearly are not serving the public interest, those licenses can be legally challenged within that time frame and should be rescinded, giving new broadcasters opportunities to both make the big bucks broadcasters do (TV stations are making as much as 46.8 percent profit, according to the most recent report issued by the FCC) and serve the public interest at the same time.

But the public needs different things in different communities. For example, are radio stations in tornado country airing tornado warnings? They should; such announcements are absolutely neccesary to public safety, but not all stations do so.

During elections, should every talk radio station in one community provide opportunities for citizens to evaluate various political agendas? That would serve the public interest far better than the one-sided “conservative” political agenda that, according to a Free Press/Center for American Progress study, is promoted in 90 percent of radio stations throughout the country today.

And what about two TV stations in the same town sharing just one newsroom, firing all the reporters at the other? Such arrangements may benefit shareholders, but does it serve communities’ needs for more and better local journalism?

This is not to say the only way to get broadcasters to serve the public interest is by filing legal challenges to their licenses. The Sacramento Media Group, affiliated with Common Cause, has successfully employed a model of knocking on TV stations’ doors, asking for five minutes of daily political coverage on TV during election season. It took meetings with station management making that request, monitoring stations’ coverage for three election cycles, writing several reports and releasing them to local newspapers (which caused the stations considerable embarrassment.) But today, SMG has found success. Their next goal is to ask local Talk radio stations for balanced political coverage, again during election seasons.

At the end of the day, the publicly owned airwaves are about public safety, about community and about ensuring First Amendment rights for everyone in the public square of broadcasting. Luckily, the Supreme Court is on our side.

In Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC, the Supreme Court held that

the First Amendment is relevant to broadcasting, but it is the right of the viewer and listener, not the broadcaster, which is paramount.

That’s the First Amendment Right of allthe viewers and listeners, not the just ones who listen to the most profitable formats for corporations.

There is much energy around restoring the Public into the Public Interest. A grassroots movement started earlier this year in Florida, when the UU Legislative Ministry supported an 11 city media reform tour featuring Broadcast Blues.

But it is really finding its legs next month with the 2011 Wisconsin Media Reform Tour featuring Broadcast Blues. (Broadcast Blues is the 2009 documentary film I made which delves into issues of public interest obligations of broadcasters.) Thanks to the organizing efforts of local folks, I’ll be traveling to eight cities in Wisconsin, showing the film, then surveying citizens as to their specific public interest needs. Next, we’ll work on how to approach their local broadcasters, not just by email, but with personal visits, and convey to the broadcasters what they need. In some cases, friendly visits will get great results: heck, the manager of the station could be somebody you went to high school with. But other times, protests, boycotts, maybe even legal petitions to deny the stations’ licenses may need to be filed.

sue wilsonWe’ll do whatever it takes to restore the public — all the public — into the public interest obligations of broadcasters.

But unlike the Fairness Doctrine, this is a bottom up approach. This is “We the People” holding both broadcasters — and the FCC accountable to us. We are taking back that which we already own: our public airwaves.

Sue Wilson
Sue Wilson Reports


  1. says


    Who is really fighting for the public interest on media matters on the Hill? And why have they failed so badly?

    I think 97% of the citizens would agree that prescription TV ads must be done away with (again).

    I think the same number would support citizen review boards that decide which commercials get on, and which do not, according to their sensibilities, and a reasonable voting criteria set up.

    People are actually being harmed, particularly poor people who are hit with these shameless, fear laced ads that scare them into thinking they have one ailment or another, but can’t afford to get the test, etc, etc. Just one example. This is truly a harm. Another example: Circa two years ago, we are now seeing people crying…yes…weeping about how their mercedes saved their life, their acne sucked, etc.

    This is so incredibly tacky…and the citizens I think deserve to have right of first refusal in their regions on this garbage.

    Please tell me what you know, what the solution is, and how to speed it up as citizens.



  2. in_awe says

    What I fail to understand is why liberals rejoice when they can wield a local version of the Fairness Doctrine as a cudgel to force their views on-air. The left will certainly be able to force some changes in media choice through the full spectrum of activism (polite conversation and requests to boycotts, protests and violence). But will the left be so enthusiastic when (and I do mean when) the pendulum swings against them in the future? Or if the same standards are enforced against print media sources?

    Air America tried and failed at least twice to enter the broadcast space to carry left wing messaging to the AM dial public. It was nationwide, well funded and boasted a star caliber roster of on-air talent. It had the rights to a slice of the radio spectrum in many markets, but failed. Why? It couldn’t attract an audience sufficient to support an advertising payback for sponsors of the programming.

    In most places when that happens it is interpreted as the community implicitly saying that the message isn’t resonating with the audience. Why that is treated by the left as some form of conspiracy I don’t know. Nobody is stopping Air America from broadcasting – it just needs to find a funding source that supports the messaging in the absence of audience support. Not hard to figure out. But the left immediately says that the conspiracy is undermining its efforts and to “level the playing field” against the rascally corporate media the proper solution is public funding of their messaging – or to allow the left to limit the number of outlets for messaging it doesn’t agree with.

    Look across all electronic media, consumers have the absolute freedom to choose which outlets to listen to – radios and TV and the internet are not limited when taken in totality. Can’t find your preferred perspective on TV, check out radio, not on radio, check out streaming media on the web. If you can’t find it anywhere – including the web – then it is a sign that the audience doesn’t really exist in numbers sizable enough for someone to dedicate their time to serving it. If you believe it does exist then build your own outlet – don’t make it a zero sum game. There is plenty of bandwidth to go around. When you can deliver a big enough constituency, the money will follow to buy access to progressively more influential capabilities (radio and TV, and in bigger markets). But for God’s sake let’s not enter an age when politically motivated activism can usurp another group’s right to consume what it wants to consume. There were plenty of “experiments” in the 20th Century that went down that ppath – and they didn’t end well.

  3. garry walsh says

    Hurray ! Americans are slowly slowly waking up. After 30 + years of dociity folks are starting to realize their country is a third world oligarchy. The solution is in the streets-not in whore washington. Good luck.

    • says

      Thanks, Garry,

      Everybody thinks they can just send off an email and that’s going to change things. But it won’t. Eyeball to eyeball, I think this will.

      Hope you will join the team, we need people who “get” it!


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