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Should You be Concerned About the FCC Study



Strange things can happen when our government is given the power to license the news media.  While the letter from House Energy and Commerce committee members attacks the FCC for what it hyperbolically calls Fairness Doctrine 2.0, lets keep in mind that there are numerous individuals and groups on both the left and the right who would gladly cheer for greater FCC censorship of broadcast media. 

One only needs to look at the plethora of comments advocating greater FCC indecency censorship to conclude that cries for governmental restrictions on broadcast station content are not the province of any one political party.  Likewise, if the words broadcast station in the FCCs political broadcasting rules were replaced by the word newspaper, it would quickly be seen how many of those existing FCC content rules are First-Amendment deficient.  

But, lets get back to the letter written by House Energy and Commerce members.  The letter questions the FCCs study of how information is delivered by broadcast stations and how local news outlets select and prioritize news coverage.  The FCC is asking broadcast station journalists, station owners, and corporate media group owners about their news philosophy, what factors influence story selection, and whether and why story ideas are rejected in the newsroom.    

Such a study on factors influencing news story selection might be interesting if sponsored by a university or a think tank.  But really, should the federal agency charged with handing out, and renewing broadcast station licenses (which are the heart of a broadcast station business) be making such inquiries? 

There was once a time when broadcast stations were required to provide quantitative amounts of news, public affairs, and other non-entertainment programming.  I remember listening to WABC in the 60s.  At 6:00 pm each day, this high-energy music station broadcast what I recall was a 20 minute news block.  Could this possibly be good programming for a music station?  Only later when I became a communications attorney did I realize that this news block was likely required to meet is promise vs. performance obligations for obtaining FCC license renewal. 

Until not too long ago, broadcast stations had to be careful of Fairness Doctrine issues.  Just a simple Fairness Doctrine complaint forwarded by the FCC could cost a station thousands of dollars in legal fees to respond.  Predictably, many stations shied away from content that could be controversial.  I experienced it first-hand as a program director several decades ago when the station owner laid down a fiat that a certain local news story involving issues of a womans right to choose was not to be broadcast lest he receive a Fairness Doctrine complaint. 

So, the FCC and our federal law does not have either a good record, or a present day propensity, to respect broadcast station First Amendment values.  Under current law, the FCC is poised to issue large fines to broadcast stations for the broadcast of specific indecent words that have, for better or worse, become part of the everyday vernacular for many.  The FCC forces broadcast stations to carry political speech possibly presenting points of view that are repugnant to a broadcast station owner and the broadcast stations audience.  Substitute the word newspapers for broadcast stations, and it is questionable whether either indecency or political broadcasting regulations would survive First Amendment scrutiny. 

A broadcast stations FCC license is like few other business licenses.  Without an FCC license, the broadcast station does not exist.  Whether a broadcast station is owned by a multi-station conglomerate or an individual, nothing can strike greater fear in the heart of a broadcast station owner than a possible loss of its license. 

This brings us to the FCCs core function which is licensing broadcast stations.  If the FCC does not intend to use the results of its Critical Information Needs study in the licensing of broadcast stations, then to what purpose is the study? 

If the FCC does intend to use the studys results in broadcast station licensing, then to what end?   Will future broadcast station license renewals hinge on the presentation of a certain quantity or quality of information, substituting the FCCs beliefs of what is newsworthy for a broadcast stations journalistic judgment? 

At its core, the FCCs inquiry is an attempt by governmental officials to substitute their leanings, their preferences, and their biases for the leanings, preferences, and biases of radio and television audiences.  Because, after all, with few exceptions, the one thing other than its FCC license that any broadcast station needs to survive is its audience.

So, it appears that this FCC study is an attempt to substitute its judgment for that of the listening and viewing public by ultimately implicitly or explicitly telling a broadcast station what it must and must not broadcast through the hammer of its licensing processes.  Thank goodness Congress is asking questions.  Now, if only Congress would take the same interest in the elimination of other First Amendment antagonistic rules such as the FCCs indecency and political speech restrictions.  The possibility of Fairness Doctrine 2.0 is only a small part of potentially injurious FCC content regulation.  The time has come for broadcast stations to be entitled to the same First Amendment privileges as are enjoyed by non-FCC licensed journalistic enterprises. 


(12/11/2013 9:48:34 PM)
Exactly what we need right now in America is a variety of voices and opinions, especially given the fact 6 companies control 95% of what Americans see and hear.
This is Radio's own fault. If you think it's okay to present only conservative viewpoints by squashing the Progressive format, then you're going to deal with the consequences.
After all, that place you're sending your station's RF belongs to the people, so far.

- Panama Jack

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