Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Tuesday, April 22, 2003  

All right, I've been taken to task by some big brains out there on my rather sloppy analysis of this media thing, which is pretty embarrasing on your own blog, but there you have it (at least no one will claim I sanitize the comments).

All of this stemmed, you may recall, when I suggested that if there was media bias, it was generally slanted to the right. To begin with: I stand behind that, to whatever degree such a statement has any meaning. There's no clear continuum of liberal to conservative, and even if we could map such a thing out, there would be no agreement about where the midpoint is. (Which bears out Dead Flat's thesis that all analysis of the phenomenon is anecdotal.) I'd place the midpoint an our hypothetical continuum far further left than almost anyone else, and so it follows that I would characterize most news as conservative.

That's interesting and worth a discussion, but it's obviously opinion.

Then there's this body of law relating to broadcast media, which isn't as subjective. To hang out the embarrasing dirty laundry: I conflated the "fairness doctrine," the "public trustee," and "public interest" language of the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Let's begin, then, with the Communications Act of 1934.

Running some 45 pages in the standard government printed version as originally passed, the act is divided into several dozen numbered sections of a paragraph or more which were originally divided into six parts called titles (a seventh was added in 1984 concerning cable television). The first title provides general provisions on the FCC, the second is devoted to common carrier regulation, the third deals with broadcasting (and is of primary concern here), the fourth with administrative and procedural matters, the fifth with penal provisions and forfeitures (fines), and the sixth with miscellaneous matters.

The act has been updated through amendment many times--chiefly with creation of public television in 1967 (provisions on the operation and funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting expanded title III), and the cable act of 1984 (which created a new title VI devoted to cable regulation, sections of which were expanded in cable legislation of 1992).

| link |

Part of this law, which remains the founding law of broadcasting, is the concept that broadcasters are "public trustees."

"The obligation to serve the public interest is integral to the "trusteeship" model of broadcasting--the philosophical foundation upon which broadcasters are expected to operate. The trusteeship paradigm is used to justify government regulation of broadcasting. It maintains that the electromagnetic spectrum is a limited resource belonging to the public, and only those most capable of serving the public interest are entrusted with a broadcast license. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government body responsible for determining whether or not applicants for broadcast license meet the requirements to obtain them and for further regulation of those to whom licenses have been granted."

| link |

From this came the notion that the trustee should be expected to serve the public interest.

Interpretation of the "public interest, convenience and necessity" clause has been a continuing source of controversy. Initially, the Federal Radio Commission implemented a set of tests, criteria which would loosely define whether or not the broadcasting entity was fulfilling its obligation to the listening public. Secifications included program diversity, quality reception, and "character" evaluation of licensees. These initial demands set a precedent for future explications of the public interest. (Same source as above.)

Among those explications were the 'fairness doctrine."

In 1949, the FCC established the Fairness Doctrine as a policy which guaranteed (among other things) the presentation of both sides of a controversial issue. This concept is rooted in the early broadcast regulation of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). Congress declared it part of the Communications Act in 1959 to safeguard the public interest and First Amendment freedoms. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine in the case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969). Although the Fairness Doctrine was enacted to promote pluralism, eventually it produced an opposite effect. Concerned that advertising time would be squandered by those who invoked the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters challenged its constitutionality claiming that it promoted censorship instead of diversity. Declared in violation of the First Amendment, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, and attempts to provide constitutional protection for the doctrine were vetoed by President Reagan in 1987. (Again, same source.)

But while the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned as law, the regulations surround the concept that broadcasters are public trustees weren't--until recently, under the push of deregulation.

Specific deregulatory moves--some by Congress, others by the FCC--included (a) extending television licenses to five years from three in 1981; (b) expanding the number of television stations any single entity could own grew from seven in 1981 to 12 in 1985 (a situation under consideration for further change in 1995); (c) abolishing guidelines for minimal amounts of non-entertainment programming in 1985; (d) elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987; (e) dropping, in 1985, FCC license guidelines for how much advertising could be carried; (f) leaving technical standards increasingly in the hands of licensees rather than FCC mandates; and (g) deregulation of television's competition (especially cable which went through several regulatory changes in the decade after 1983).

| link |

Following this thread, we come back to a slightly different question, which is: what is the public interest and how is it best served? This is perhaps a better framing question (it is for me, certainly). As this blog is running long, and I'm running short on time, I'll pick up those questions later today.

posted by Jeff | 12:11 PM |
Blogroll and Links