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Speech Suppression? FCC Loses "Petitions to Deny" WTMJ + WISN Broadcast Licenses

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Doing something about the "do-nothing" FCC by gw

[UPDATE: See comment below by Sue Wilson] If enough Americans got tired of bias on talk radio and did something about it, what would it look like? Beyond petition or protest, can formal complaints made by the public have any influence on the FCC? 

All Americans gripe and complain about one broadcaster or another being "in the tank" for the powerful, or driven by greed to cross many a societal line, but suppose it went too far - suppose people got hurt, or killed. Suppose misinformation caused material damage or violated someone's rights?

Now, the question for the FCC is whether formal complaints are even entered into the public record. We are finding out in the case of two Milwaukee stations, that despite settled law on paper, the "process" for public input in FCC license renewal may not actually exist:

FCC Misplaces Petitions to Deny Broadcast Licenses to Milwaukee Radio Stations Who Gave $1 Million Free Airtime to Walker Recall Campaign

MILWAUKEE -- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) apparently has "lost" legal petitions filed to deny the licenses of Milwaukee radio stations WISN and WTMJ on November 1 for subsidizing the recall campaign of Gov. Scott Walker with about $1 million of free airtime while not allowing any supporters of his opponent Tom Barrett on the air.

The public interest group Media Action Center (MAC) was informed its license challenges will be delayed because the FCC cannot find the legal pleadings, even though the agency had signed a receipt accepting them earlier this month. The deadline for the FCC to respond was thought to be Dec. 1.  

Sue Wilson, director of MAC, says it is only because reporters started calling the FCC asking questions about the license challenges that the problem came to light. After sending Peter Doyle, Chief of the FCC Media Bureau's Audio Division, proof that the Office of the Secretary of the FCC had indeed signed for the documents, Doyle asked that she resend the documents this week.

"Mr. Doyle is working with us to accommodate our filings, but it is clear the FCC is more geared for working with corporate lawyers than the very public it is sworn to protect," said Wilson, who confirmed she carefully followed the instructions for filing Petitions to Deny on the FCC website.

"In my film Broadcast Blues," explained Wilson, "we documented how the FCC takes years to respond to Petitions to Deny, if there is any response at all. The agency pays so little attention to them, it cannot say how many license challenges are pending before them, and the FCC does not even know when it last took away any station's license to broadcast for any reason. 

The Petitions to Deny station licenses are the only means the public has to hold TV and Radio stations which are behaving recklessly accountable to the public interest, and we are standing up for our rights as the true owners of the airwaves."

MAC conducted a comprehensive study in May/June of 2012 -- during the Scott Walker recall campaign -- which clearly showed the two stations each gave supporters of Gov. Walker and the GOP about 80 minutes of free airtime daily on their local talk radio shows, while refusing any access to supporters of [opposing candidate] Mayor Tom Barrett and Democrats whatsoever.   

This, the challenge asserts, amounts to private censorship, which violates the First Amendment rights of those in the community who are denied access to the scarce publicly owned airwaves during campaigns. It further states the stations willfully have violated existing FCC rules about comparable time, citing legal opinions from the Wisconsin Broadcasters' Association.   

"Broadcast stations have a unique duty to serve the entire public, especially during campaigns," explains MAC director Sue Wilson.  "When a radio station uses its giant microphones to cheerlead for candidates of only one political party, no matter which political party it may be, it violates the First Amendment rights and public trust of the entire community. 
In short, the FCC said "the dog ate my homework" when faced with clear evidence that specific laws are being flouted. 

Our founding fathers insisted on public education so citizens would have the proper information to vote during elections. A century later, laws governing how radio would be used in this civic duty crystallized the same sentiment - competing candidates must be heard on our radio stations, if they so wish. 

Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 imposes the Equal Opportunities doctrine (or "Equal Time"), which the FCC has interpreted to mean that stations need to treat all candidates running for the same office in the same way. This includes paid ads or free time given for a candidate to riff on the air. 

In 1970, the Zapple Doctrine added similar strictures for supporters of candidates running for office. This could mean guests, pundits or even callers. In 2004, the John Kerry campaign threatened to invoke Zapple to get comparable time on stations planning to run a Swift Boat documentary, resulting in withdrawal of the idea.

Do Laws Mean Anything To The FCC?

With this clear-cut complaint documenting serious broadcasting infractions during the Scott Walker re-election campaign, the FCC has shown they are not prepared to respond.

In general, elected leaders have little discretion to regulate political free speech. President Obama's recent defense of an inflammatory anti-Muslim YouTube video buttressed this yet again. But the FCC licensing process clearly provides for public feedback, complaints and even a "Petition to Deny" relicensing.

Moreover, other statutes governing 'comparable time' during election periods in the "public interest" are equally as explicit. But stations have pushed the envelope further out of compliance each election cycle, with the FCC playing doormat, or in some cases, accomplice. 

One example is the current proposal to lift the ban on TV station owners buying newspapers in top 20 markets. This would give Rupert Murdoch the green light to acquire the LA Times and Chicago Tribune, despite a UK Parliamentary Committee declaring Murdoch "unfit" to own a TV license after 20 employees were arrested in an illegal phone hacking scandal.

One movement to deny a station renewal stemmed from the 2007 death of a 28 year old woman in a wacky DJ contest in Sacramento. But what about talk hosts who intentionally rile up violent political unrest, or misinform the public on important civic issues?

In the case of Governor Walker's recall election, did the public get shortchanged by stations and hosts too cowardly to entertain a simple open debate showing both perspectives? And what about Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who never got a proper opportunity to refute claims made in the crucial days preceding the election? 

For WTMJ, it wouldn't be the first time - former program director Dan Shelly already revealed how WTMJ has long suppressed dissent including a sitting US Senator who called in to give a public rebuttal.

These stations could make this all go away by having open, transparent debate on the air. Why not conduct hard-nosed interviews of Democratic candidates showing the holes in their platforms to inform the public?

Why not out-argue the liberals to prove the superior position on the issues. Why do the NEED to censor half the public to win?

What could be frightening the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world so much? They say progressives should buy their own stations, in order to be able to set the record straight, absurdly suggesting a candidate running for office has to get into the radio business to debunk spin made on a different station.

Does Air America's Collapse Prove Liberals Can't Hold Audiences?
Ironically, it is the "failed" alumni of Air America Radio providing some of the juiciest discourse in the country today, and they all love to debate the other side in the open. 

While Al Franken sits in the US Senate, Randi Rhodes has been hired to a lucrative contract by Rush and Sean's boss Premier Networks. Thom Hartmann and Cenk Uygur enthrall millions daily on radio, TV and online while Rachel Maddow has acyually begun topping Sean Hannity's ratings on cable TV with some regularity, particularly with younger viewers.

Our elementary schools still teach kids to present both sides of an argument in any persuasive essay, ingraining in them the intellectual honesty needed not only to win fairly, but to consider all alternatives to improve the argument. Parents want their kids to be educated and informed. The competitiveness of the USA relies on our critical thinking skills. 

So why have we abandoned enforcement of established broadcast law to allow Nixonian media manipulation? And if the FCC wants to allow propaganda as acceptable free speech, why don't they change the law first?

If you have an opinion you'd like to share with the FCC commissioners, email them at:

Chairman Kevin J. Martin: KJMWEB@fcc.gov
Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy: Kathleen.Abernathy@fcc.gov
Commissioner Michael J. Copps: Michael.Copps@fcc.gov
Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein: Jonathan.Adelstein@fcc.gov

 

(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)
 

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Join the folks at FreePress to petition the FCC if... by Gustav Wynn on Friday, Nov 30, 2012 at 10:29:46 AM
I heard from the FCC's media bureau today, they ha... by Sue Wilson on Friday, Nov 30, 2012 at 5:27:42 PM
via the revolving door between business and govern... by intotheabyss on Friday, Nov 30, 2012 at 8:12:38 PM
If you want to join our effort to pressure the FCC... by Sue Wilson on Sunday, Dec 2, 2012 at 3:28:26 PM
Thanks for spearheading this effort.The way the FC... by Gustav Wynn on Sunday, Dec 2, 2012 at 5:25:14 PM