Friday, October 15, 2004
Some perspective on Sinclair Broadcasting (footnote added)
- The FCC's relaxation of restrictions on the number of television stations held by one owner—currently on hold after a decision by a federal judge—can be permanently halted. Sinclair's actions should add fuel to the already strong media-reform movement. Less likely but very much needed would be a forced divestment of some of the stations that companies such as Sinclair and Viacom have already acquired under previous relaxations of the media-ownership rules.
- If Kerry wins this election and Democrats make gains in the Congress, which I expect, there may be some hope of resurrecting the Fairness doctrine.1 The Fairness doctrine was an FCC rule and could be reinstituted by a Kerry-appointed FCC friendly to the First Amendment.
In the meanwhile, we have a greatly consolidated media and no Fairness doctrine and numbers of Liberals who are concerned about being "fair" to Sinclair. The Right couldn't be happier.
As you've probably heard, a small weekly newspaper that serves Crawford, Texas, the Lone Star Iconoclast, made national news September 29 when it editorially endorsed Kerry over Bush. The paper had endorsed Bush in the previous election. Newspapers have no requirement to be "balanced." So let's see how the Right-wingers have handled the problem.
I thought of Sinclair Broadcasting as I read this note in Andrew Buncombe's "Election Diary"—
There is a danger with newspaper endorsements, as the Lone Star Iconoclast, a weekly in President George Bush's home town of Crawford, has discovered. The paper's publisher, W Leon Smith, decided to endorse John Kerry rather than the local man and the reaction has been severe. Businesses have pulled adverts and refused to sell the newspaper while many have cancelled subscriptions. "I knew a person or two might pull an ad, that we might lose a subscriber or two. But this has turned a little more vicious," said Mr Smith.
Just how "vicious" has it been? The NY Times reports,
.... A local weekly newspaper, The Lone Star Iconoclast, living up to its name, has also declared for Mr. Kerry, paying a steep price in canceled subscriptions and hate mail.
.... A fourth staff member listed on the masthead, David Anderson, associate editor, has dissociated himself from the editorial, said Michael Harvey, spokesman for the editor in chief, W. Leon Smith.
Mr. Smith, 51, the Iconoclast's snowy-bearded majority owner and fervid Ronald Reagan admirer, said in his cluttered office in nearby Clifton that all three of the newspaper's outlets in Crawford had stopped selling it and that a readers' boycott had cut newsstand and subscription sales to 482 copies a week from 920.
In a note to readers in the Oct. 6 issue, he also said, "Unfortunately, for The Iconoclast and its publishers there have been threats - big ones including physical harm." ....
The newspaper's Web site reported that 700 letters had poured in, pro and con, and that nearly 100 people had opened new subscriptions.
Joyce Smith, who works at the Fina station, where the newspaper has been pulled off the stands, was adamant. "Everybody has freedom of expression," she said, "but there are repercussions."
She and others in town complained that Mr. Smith had chosen to foist his views in the special issue devoted to the Tonkawa Traditions Festival, the annual Crawford fair, named for an Indian tribe, which raises money for community improvements and scholarships. "He took advantage of the advertisers," Ms. Smith said.
To "dispel the rumor that the town backed Kerry," 128 individual and commercial supporters of President Bush took out a two-page advertisement on Oct. 7 in another weekly, The McGregor Mirror, declaring that they "wholeheartedly endorse" him for re-election.
Mr. Campbell, 61, a Methodist pastor who has been mayor since 1999, said he saw the momentum shifting to Mr. Kerry. "I think a lot of people are looking seriously to switch to his side," he said. Of course, the businessmen were Republicans, he said.
"They're for Bush," he said of the stores on either side of his small municipal office on the main street. "The bank's for Bush, the Yellow Rose is for Bush. When you think about it, business is for Bush. He helps them." [emphasis added]
Please note that unlike broadcasters, newspapers never did and (if the First Amendment is preserved) never will have a responsibility to be "fair," that is—to print opposing views. If run as a business, they operate completely at the whim of the market. And for the Lone Star Iconoclast, supporting John Kerry has been a very bad business decision.
In the matter of Sinclair, Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, announced yesterday that the FCC would take no action to halt the broadcast.
But as Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman, said in a letter to Josh Marshall,
.... If Sinclair wants to disseminate propaganda, it should buy a printing press, or create a Web site. These other media have no conditions on their publication of points of view. This is the law, and it should be honored. In fact, if the FCC had any sense of its responsibility as a steward of fair elections, its chairman now would express exactly what I am writing to you here.
Since there is to be no intervention from the FCC, it is up to the Left to make Sinclair's action a very bad business decision.
Write to Sinclair's advertisers and support the boycott of any advertiser that continues to give its money to Sinclair Broadcasting. And if you're of the hand-wringing Liberal persuasion, just remember that anything short of a bomb threat is likely to be "fairer" to Sinclair than the Right would be.
The Fairness Doctrine is best explained by telling a few stories of its use.
In 1976 when Congress was debating legislation on strip mine reclamation, radio station WHAR in Clarksburg, West Virginia, refused to carry any coverage of the issue. The station's owner said the subject was too controversial. Citizens used the Fairness Doctrine to force the station to air the debate -- both sides
Oklahoma Gas and Electric launched a major campaign in 1976 to promote its request for a rate increase. The Oklahoma Coalition for Older People approached radio and TV stations asking for a balanced presentation as required by the Fairness Doctrine. One station then scheduled two half-hour public affairs programs on the rate hike. Others aired spot announcements opposing the hike.
The Fairness Doctrine was an ingenious device, because it empowered the public, not the government, to monitor the fairness of the airwaves. Citizens who felt that a public issue was not being fairly discussed brought complaints directly to broadcasters. Most of those complaints were settled then and there, usually by the simple provision of time for another point of view. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came into a case only rarely, when the broadcaster and the citizens could not agree. Even then, the FCC did not impose fines or dictate how the station should respond; it only directed the station to come up with more balanced coverage. [emphasis added]
So what happened to the Fairness Doctrine?
In 1982 WTVH-TV in Syracuse, New York, ran ads promoting the Nine Mile II nuclear power plant as a "sound investment for New York's future." The Syracuse Peace Council asked for time to point out that the plant, originally budgeted at $400 million, had by then cost $5.1 billion and was far from a sound investment. The station appealed to the FCC, which ruled that WTVH must air the opposing point of view.
But the owners of WTVH appealed that ruling. The case was brought to the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals, with Judge Robert Bork, of all people, on the bench, along with then Judge Antonin Scalia. The Court reached far beyond the limits of the particular case and asked the FCC to determine whether the Fairness Doctrine restricts the right of free speech of broadcasters.
The Reagan Administration, which has always opposed the Fairness Doctrine, was waiting for this opportunity. In August 1987 the FCC repealed the Doctrine, claiming that it was unconstitutional, although the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1969 that the Fairness Doctrine was not only constitutional but essential to democracy.
As for that 1969 Supreme Court ruling, the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes it this way—
The FCC fairness policy was given great credence by the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC. In that case, a station in Pennsylvania, licensed by Red Lion Co., had aired a "Christian Crusade" program wherein an author, Fred J. Cook, was attacked. When Cook requested time to reply in keeping with the fairness doctrine, the station refused. Upon appeal to the FCC, the Commission declared that there was personal attack and the station had failed to meet its obligation. The station appealed and the case wended its way through the courts and eventually to the Supreme Court. The court ruled for the FCC, giving sanction to the fairness doctrine.[back]