Friday, September 23, 2011

The People of Wisconsin vs. Corporate Media Broadcasters

This evening, I attended the Milwaukee stop of the Broadcast Blues Tour with Sue "Blues" Wilson.

And like the saying goes, you learn something new every day.  Although today it was several somethings

One thing I learned was that when it comes to political ads on the TV or radio, there is a mandatory carriage rule.  That means that if a politician has an ad to run during an election cycle, the TV or radio station has to carry it, even if the ad is chock full of lies.

For example, next year, after Scott Walker is recalled, he could run an ad saying how the state has a $3 billion dollar deficit, even though that has been found to be a ridiculous lie.  Likewise, his Democratic opponent could run an ad saying Walker wants to eat your children, which would be another ridiculous lie.  Walker doesn't eat children, he sells them as corporate serfs.

I also learned that even though the Fairness Doctrine is dead, there are still other factors, like the Zapple Doctrine, which still requires equal time be given to the different sides of an issue:
What remains unknown about yesterday's announcement from the Chairman is just how far this repeal goes. While certain corollaries of the Doctrine - including the political editorializing and personal attack rules - have been specifically mentioned in press reports as being repealed, the one vestige of the doctrine that potentially has some vitality - the Zapple Doctrine compelling a station to provide time to the supporters of one candidate if the station provides time to the supporters of another candidate in a political race, has never specifically been abolished, and is not mentioned in the Chairman's statement. Zapple, also known as "quasi-equal opportunities", has been argued in in various recent controversies, including in connection with the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, when Kerry supporters claimed that they should get equal time to respond should certain television stations air the anti-Kerry Swift Boat "documentary." We have written about Zapple many times (see, for instance, here, in connection with the Citizens United decision). What would be beneficial to broadcasters would be a determination as to whether Zapple has any remaining vitality, as some have felt that this doctrine is justified independent of the Fairness Doctrine. Perhaps that clarification will come when the full text of the FCC action is released.
Likewise, from the same article, I learned that TV and radio stations are required to uphold the standard of whatever they air has to be in the public interest:
While this action has been greeted by some as confirmation that we will not see the Fairness Doctrine revived by the Commission, that jubilation seems a little unwarranted. If there was a future FCC that decided that they wanted to impose some degree of Fairness obligations on broadcasters, they still would have ways of doing so. After all, broadcasters are subject to an overall obligation to operate in the public interest, a standard that has, over the years, changed as Commissions change their interpretation of what it means. As we've written before, some would like to put more teeth into the standard, which could include some Fairness-like requirements. Section 315 of the Communications Act, dealing with equal opportunities for political candidates, itself has language that implies that there is some sort of Fairness obligation of broadcasters, at least in connection with their news coverage:
Nothing in the foregoing sentence shall be construed as relieving broadcasters, in connection with the presentation of newscasts, news interviews, news documentaries, and on-the-spot coverage of news events, from the obligation imposed upon them under this chapter to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.
Thus, just because the Fairness Doctrine has been repealed, one cannot conclude that the FCC will never meddle in the speech of broadcasters. These debates over what is permiited and what should be restricted on the air have gone on as long as there have been broadcasters, and they will not end with yesterday's announcement.
In other words, it means that it is inherent on the TV and radio stations to provide equal time to opposing sides on an issues, whether it is political or not.

I also learned tonight that while media stations are required to run a politician's ad, no matter what, they are not under the same constraints for third-party ads. In fact, it is inherent on the station to determine if the ad is true or not and not run ads that are false, because that would be against thepublic interest. This was recently demonstrated when KOI-TV refused to air an ad for Stephen Colburt ad for Rick Parry, the parody of Rick Perry. They felt the ad was not in the public's interest for whatever reason. At the end of the article is the money quote:
... In fact, third party ads put more responsibility on stations to review the content of these ads as they are theoretically liable for the content of third party ads (see our articles here and here). So WOI was perfectly within its rights to reject an ad by the Colbert Super PAC – no doubt a disappointment to the Colbert fans in Iowa who wanted a first look at the commercial, but legally an appropriate action nevertheless.
If the station runs an ad that is false, they could get sued for simply airing the ad.

And now comes the fun part.

Anyone who has been paying attention during the summer of the recalls noticed that there were two major obstacles to reclaiming the state for the People of Wisconsin:

  1. The unfair and biased nature of the corporate media in the state, most notably stations like WTMJ-620 here in Southeastern Wisconsin.
  2. The falsehoods and misrepresentations in ads run by the Koch Brothers-sponsored front groups, like the misnamed Wisconsin Club for Growth.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth bought tons of air time all across the state, including her in the Milwaukee area, running ads to defend the Republicans facing recall.

However, the ads that they ran were demonstratively false:
  • When they said that the unions had not previously had to make sacrifices, that was found to be "mostly false" by PolitiFact.
  • When they said that Sand Pasch, the challenger to Alberta Darling, had done nothing to stop fraud in the child care system, that too was found to be "mostly false."
  • When CfG said that the Democrats had voted for all sorts of pork in 2009, including a $5 million scoreboard for the Milwaukee Bucks, this earned them a full "False" rating from PolitiFact.
I bet it wouldn't take long to find other ads and other lies as well.

Yet the radio and TV stations aired these ads anyway.  By doing so, they have opened themselves up for the People of Wisconsin to sue them for violating their solemn duty to uphold the public interest.

Let that sink in for a minute.

We can use the Kochs' own false ads to sue their friends, the corporate media stations which unquestioningly aired them.  And we can use the reporting of the corporate media's own newspapers to support the People's arguments regarding the falseness of the ads..

That is what I would call some really sweet poetic justice.

And I could not think of a better way to start reclaiming our airwaves.


  1. It seems shameful that we (people would have to chip in-fund) the account that would sue the stations. That is where the money would come from right?

    Thanks for all the details in the article. Wonderful. I will bookmark it.

  2. Actually, the Media Action Center should have that covered. I've already sent this to them.