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Should Our Public Airwaves Be Fair and Balanced?

Nov. 27, 2012
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For years, fair-minded radio listeners have complained about right-wing talkers’ near monopoly on Milwaukee’s airwaves.

Listeners were frustrated that their calls weren’t taken; that candidates, elected officials and issues weren’t given a fair hearing; and that hosts such as 620 WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes and News/Talk 1130 WISN’s Mark Belling were unpaid surrogates for Scott Walker and their favorite Republican politicians.

Now, however, these frustrated listeners are fighting back by challenging the stations’ broadcast licenses, both of which are up for renewal in December.


$744,000 of Free Air Time for Walker in 15 Days

This May, a few Milwaukeeans rallied around the Media Action Center (MAC), a public-interest group led by California-based journalist Sue Wilson, who has been working to restore fairness and balance in the broadcast media.

Wilson, via her Broadcast Blues documentary and activism, is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect the public interest on the public airwaves used by commercial radio and TV stations.

The MAC volunteers in Milwaukee agreed to monitor WTMJ’s and WISN’s news and talk shows to see how much time they were giving to guests from both sides of the political aisle.

WTMJ is owned by Journal Broadcast Group, and is the home of conservative talkers Sykes and Jeff Wagner. WISN, owned by Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, offers up right-wing hosts Belling, Jay Weber, Vicki McKenna, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

The MAC volunteers decided to monitor the shows before the June 5 recall election between Walker and his Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, to see if the radio hosts were giving both candidates and their supporters equal time on their shows.

Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, broadcast shows are not required to give equal time during all months of the year.

But Wilson and MAC argue that broadcasters do need to adhere to the often-overlooked Zapple Doctrine, which requires them to give roughly equal time to major candidates and their supporters during the 60 days leading up to an election.

Wilson contends that the Zapple Doctrine protects the First Amendment rights of candidates, supporters and listeners by ensuring that all parties can be heard on the public airwaves.

What the monitors found in May shouldn’t shock anyone who’s tuned in to Sykes, Belling or their on-air colleagues:

  • On average, WISN gave Walker and his Republican supporters 77 minutes of free airtime each day, while giving Barrett and his supporters 1 minute of time daily.
  • On average, WTMJ gave Walker and his supporters 79 minutes of free airtime each day, while pro-Barrett messages got four seconds and Democrats received 56 seconds of coverage per day.
  • Based on the stations’ advertising costs, MAC estimated that the stations provided $15,000 to $30,000 of free airtime daily to Walker and his supporters, or $744,000 in the first 15 days of the recall election cycle. Barrett, on the other hand, received just $4,800 worth of airtime over 15 days.
  • When supporters of Democrats contacted the stations to ask for comparable time on the air under the Zapple Doctrine, WTMJ responded by saying that it did not have to provide it. WISN did not respond to their requests.
  • In addition to promoting Walker and his fellow Republicans, WISN also allowed guests to recruit pro-Walker volunteers while on the air.


MAC Challenges Stations’ License Renewals

Based on this evidence, MAC is challenging the license renewals of WTMJ and WISN. Renewals come up every eight years; the licenses are set to expire on Dec. 1, but, according to the FCC, will remain pending while they are being challenged.

“We are asking the FCC to deny these licenses on the grounds that [WISN and WTMJ] are willfully breaking existing FCC rules during political campaigns, and worse, they are violating the First Amendment rights of members of this community,” said Randy Bryce, a local member of MAC, at a press conference held last week in front of WTMJ’s Capitol Drive offices.

Steve Wexler, executive vice president of Journal Broadcast Group, said that he would not make any public comments about the petition to deny WTMJ’s license renewal. Jerry Bott, WISN’s program director, did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.

Wilson sees the Milwaukee experience as a test case for the FCC’s willingness to enforce the Zapple Doctrine and to protect the free speech rights of the community on the publicly owned airwaves.

“The FCC has [the Zapple Doctrine] on the books,” Wilson said. “The FCC is not really sure if they want to enforce it or not.”

Peter Doyle, chief of the audio division of the FCC’s media bureau, seemed to confirm the agency’s lack of interest in enforcing the Zapple Doctrine, saying that it’s been argued that the doctrine is not in effect, an “incidental casualty” of the repeal of the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to make good-faith efforts to reach out to all parties for comment on hot-button issues.

Doyle wrote in an email that the last published decision on a Zapple Doctrine complaint was in 1992.

Chris Terry, a lecturer on media law at UW-Milwaukee, said that while MAC deserves “a lot of respect” for raising the issue of fairness on the airwaves, the group’s battle with the FCC would be a tough one.

Terry said the commission is more interested in regulating media ownership and monitoring content for indecency than in ensuring that all types of political views have access to the public airwaves.

The FCC allows the marketplace to decide which political views are heard, Terry said.

He added that the Zapple Doctrine’s exemption for “bona fide news” programs gives the stations a basis for arguing that Sykes’s and Belling’s shows should not be regulated for their content.

That exemption, and the end of the Fairness Doctrine, means that the FCC appears to lack the ability to ensure that all viewpoints are heard on the airwaves, Terry said.

“One of the reasons we are where we are with content regulation, and that there isn’t a mechanism in place to protect this other [political] speech, is that the FCC has sort of thrown the television and radio markets to the wolves and said, ‘You guys sort it out…. We’re going to let the market decide what the content should be,’” Terry said. “For better or worse, that’s where they are. But I’m skeptical that the marketplace works as well as the FCC believes that it does.”

Wilson, for her part, is undaunted and is calling on frustrated WTMJ and WISN listeners to support MAC’s complaints at the FCC by emailing their comments to campaignlaw@fcc.gov and to copy her at complain@tellfcc.com so she can track the complaints.

“We are not going away quietly,” Wilson said.


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