Tuesday, June 27, 2006

FCC: Conflicts of Interest Serve the Public Interest

And speaking of "FromDC2Iowa" . . . The FCC has reportedly gone out of its way to not only renew the challenged license of KWWL-TV in Waterloo, but to use the opportunity to further reduce the responsibilities of broadcast licensees generally, making a mockery of the standards applicable to broadcasters still required by law to serve "the public interest."

The decision is reminiscent of the Commission's "deregulation" efforts when it ruled that fraud was no longer a violation of the public interest standard.

The report in the trade magazine, Broadcasting & Cable, follows -- to which some more commentary is added.

FCC Denies Challenge, Renews KWWL License

John Eggerton

Broadcasting & Cable


June 26, 2006 1:24:00 PM

[Note: This material is copyright by Broadcasting & Cable, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for
non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of Broadcasting & Cable.]

The FCC has dismissed a challenge to the license of Raycom's KWWL(TV) Waterloo, Iowa, and granted the station a new seven-year lease on life.

The license had been challenged over two station editorials that the petitioner said were motivated by undisclosed financial interest in the issues, and in one cast, was delivered without sufficient time for reply. The FCC concluded that it had little power to interfere with news decision-making, that private and public interests were not mutually exclusive, and that there was insufficient evidence that granting the license would, on its face, be inconsistent with the public interest.

One editorial was called "The Digital Age of Television" and advocated maintaining the 2009 hard date for the digital switch. The other opposed a ballot initiative creating a local telecommunications utility commission.

Raycom, said petitioner Richard C. Young, did not disclose that it had a financial interest in not extending the time during which it would have to simulcast analog and digital, and did not disclose that it had a financial relationship with a cable provider who would be directly affected by the creation of the utility commission.

In addition, Young said, the editorial on the utility commission came the night before the election, not providing the other side sufficient time for rebuttal.

The FCC pointed out that, since it had scrapped the fairness doctrine--almost 20 years ago--there was no guaranteed right of reply, so the station was not required to make any time available for rebuttal.

The FCC also said that news was the core programming protected by the First Amendment and that the Commission "has very little authority to interfere with a licensee's selection and presentation of...editorial programming. Station KWWL(TV) exercised its good faith discretion in determining that the two editorials were relevant and important to the community it served."

As to the financial interest, Raycom said that was not its motivation, and the FCC said it didn't matter whether it was or not. The FCC's Media Bureau said that while "the public interest is paramount to the private interests of a commercial broadcast licensee," the FCC doesn't generally intervene if the private and public interests are not incompatible. "The private interest in airing the two editorials, to the extent there existed one, did not pose a risk of harm to viewers," the FCC said.

# # #

Put aside the decision to grant the license renewal, as such. If the story is accurate, the license renewal challenge was based on but two complaints regarding a couple of editorials. Whether two such failings during a seven-year license term should be grounds for loss of license for a multi-million-dollar property is, at a minimum, subject to reasonable disagreement.

But focus on what the petitioners complained of, and the irrational and irrelevant response of the Commission.

It's fairly clear that, on these two occasions, the station owners were using their grant of public property for private use to serve the limited, selfish interests of their own corporate profit rather than "the public interest."

As I read the story, petitioners were not even complaining about that. They had but two complaints: (1) that the station had not revealed its conflict of interest, and (2) that one of the editorials dealt with an election issue so close to the election that no response was possible.

The FCC's "analysis" -- "
that it had little power to interfere with news decision-making, that private and public interests were not mutually exclusive" and its reference to KWWL's judgment that the two stories were "important and relevant to the community" -- is simply not responsive. To require stations to comply, as a matter of "public interest," with what professional journalists would do in their stories as a matter of course -- reveal conflicts of interest -- is neither an interference in news decision-making (i.e., what stories to report and how to report them) or a declaration that private and public interests are mutually exclusive, or a challenge to a station's judgment that a story is "important," or a finding that to have a private interest in a story "poses a risk of harm to viewers." It simply says -- as with payola, plugola and video news releases from commercial sources presented as the station's news -- when there is a risk of deception, when what is being presented (both subject and treatment) as independent news judgment at least impacts upon, if not actually a result of, undisclosed commercial interests of the station owner, those interests should be revealed.

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