Talkers magazine, the "Bible of Talk Radio" reported yesterday on an FCC complaint lodged against two Milwaukee stations for biased coverage of the Scott Walker recall election. Legal affairs editor Steven Weisman cut to the heart of the debate after a Wisconsin radio monitoring group reported crushing pro-Walker imbalance in booking guests, commentary and air time during the critical "election period" preceding Tuesday's election.
Weisman noted that the right wing talkers must either comply with equal time requests, or qualify as bonafide "news interview" broadcasts. He asks readers:
"...do the shows qualify as news interview programs? The FCC has taken a broad interpretation of the term "news interview program" recognizing that the public gets its "news" from sources that would not previously have been considered to be conventional "news interview programs." The unwritten standard appears to be that shows where the station and host have the ultimate control over the questions asked during the program can meet the standard of "news interview programs."
Using this standard, the FCC has granted the exception to such diverse shows as "The Phil Donahue Show," "Good Morning America," "Politically Incorrect," "Sally Jessy Raphael," "Geraldo" and even both "The Howard Stern Show" and "The Jerry Springer Show."
Based on these rulings, it seems the FCC hasn't considered this for quite a while, particularly in the muddy waters of the post-Citizens United era.
Laundering Political Payola Through Ad Buys
New to the debate is the prevalence of superPAC advertising or "charter sponsorship" endorsement deals like the contract forged between the Heritage Foundation and the Hannity and Limbaugh shows, in which "live reads" are easily confused with show content. Resembling one-sided "infomercial" time they could be considered "in kind contributions" subject to reporting and electioneering laws.
Another crucial issue in recent elections has been bald on-air fundraising for campaigns - exclusive to particular candidates. Controversy over direct contributions to candidates by media figures from Rupert Murdoch to Keith Olbermann has also been making headlines for years.
But despite FCC guidelines condemning bias in broadcasting, we haven't seen rulings on political talk shows, enforcing equal time during elections. The FCC says it does act to "protect the public interest where it has received documented evidence of such rigging or slanting."
In this case, the watchdog group documented WTMJ and WISN devoting an average of 120 minutes of pro-Walker or pro-Republican editorializing for every minute of air time in support of Democrats. Weisman continues:
"It would seem then that where the particular show and station used its own discretion to choose the guest on a show and where at least some of the time during its regular programming provided discussions of political matters, the show would come within the "news interview program" exception.
However, if it can be proved as alleged by Sue Wilson and the Media Action Center that these Milwaukee radio stations consistently only interviewed or promoted a single candidate without ever providing air time to his opponent, it is not only possible, but likely that the FCC would not apply the exception and would require equal time for the other candidates.
The FCC rules on this matter may have a significant effect on the upcoming Fall national and state elections."
Kudos to Talkers for recognizing the ramifications of this - no less than a fight over legalizing domestic propaganda.
This is a serious issue for top-rated radio giants Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, but also hundreds more "template" hosts who cower from open debate, prune callers and book only "compatible" guests.