But what are we the people -- who own the airwaves -- getting in return? And what can we the people to do reclaim our rights as the real owners of our public airwaves?
As to what people are getting in return, not enough. TV stations could provide robust political reporting, debates, and free airtime to candidates, but are not wont to do so.
Given the billions pouring into their coffers to enrich shareholders by selling time that influences elections over our public airwaves, broadcasters could certainly do more to serve the public interest in return. Much more. But they will not -- until we truly understand our rights as the owners of the radio and TV airwaves, and begin to stand up for them, one community at a time.
The Zapple Doctrine
Here's an example of real action -- with real teeth -- that we the local people can take against Big Corporate Media.
On May 24, I filed a formal complaint to the FCC through the Media Action Center against WISN and WTMJ radio, the two giant 50,000-watt Milwaukee outlets who gave Walker and the GOP roughly 160 minutes of free daily airtime (worth as much as $68,000 every day) while giving virtually none to his opponent.
That, as I reported previously, violates an obscure FCC rule called the Zapple Doctrine, which says if a station gives supporters of one candidate time, they must provide supporters of the other major party candidate comparable time in the 60 days prior to an election.
The FCC is reviewing the case; the talk radio industry's Talker's Magazine responded to my complaint by noting, "the FCC rules on this matter may have a significant effect on the upcoming fall national and state elections." I see it as pitting the First Amendment Rights of We the People v. Big Corporate Media.
Now, there are unconfirmed reports in Wisconsin that TV stations there sold so many local advertising spots to the Scott Walker side, they had few left to sell to Tom Barrett and the Democrats. Again, we, the owners of the local TV airwaves, can confirm those reports by inspecting the public files of the stations. (No wonder the stations are trying to keep these files under wraps.) If true, we will be filing another complaint to the FCC for the TV stations violating Zapple.
Truth in Advertising
Back to Citizens United: there is another obscure legal concept which could provide the citizenry with a tool for change -- without a constitutional amendment -- before the 2012 general election.
It turns out that if a candidate wants to buy airtime from a TV or radio station, the station must sell the time, and it may not vet or censor the ad in any way. (So, legally, candidates may lie to public as much as they want.)
But third party ads, the ones which have been loosed by the Citizens United decision, are treated differently. Stations do not have to take those ads. If they do, and if those ads lie to the public, the stations may be held liable.
Pause and think about holding your local TV station liable for lying third party ads. I can feel the shudder running through the halls of broadcast management right about now.
Typically, it is a candidate who is being defamed in an ad that would file such a suit. That person, attorneys tell me, has the standing to file, as they are the ones being harmed by the ad.