December 7, 2005
By Suzanne Nelson
Roll Call Staff
A coalition of media and campaign watchdog groups are challenging the license renewals of all English-language television stations in Chicago and Milwaukee, alleging a "market-wide failure" to cover local and state politics prior to the 2004 elections.
In documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission last month, the groups charge that less than 2 percent of the stations' election-related newscasts in the month running up to last year's election dealt with state and local coverage.
This week, Meredith McGehee, Director of the Media Policy program at the Campaign Legal Center, sent a letter to members of the House and Senate Commerce committees informing them of the petitions. According to the letter, "In both media markets, the presidential race took the largest portion of election related news: 66 percent in Chicago and 74 percent in Milwaukee. In stark contrast, races for the U.S. House of Representatives accounted for just four percent of election related news in Chicago and a mere one percent in Milwaukee."
The issue of how broadcast stations cover local and state elections is a long-simmering subject among campaign reform groups. Although a widespread consensus on possible remedies has not emerged, the long-standing complaint is that broadcasters are happy to charge politicians top rates to get their messages on the air but are less than enthusiastic about offering sustained coverage of their campaigns.
The Media Access Project, the Campaign Legal Center, the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition and Chicago Media Action signed the petitions to the FCC. In support of their accusations, the groups cite a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs that analyzed the five highest-rated local commercial broadcasters' coverage during the last four weeks of the 2004 cycle in those two markets.
"These petitions reveal a fundamental marketplace failure in the coverage of what is arguably the most important kind of programming in a modern democracy - coverage of local elections," Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman said in a statement announcing the challenge. "It is impossible to find that Milwaukee and Chicago TV stations have fulfilled their public interest obligations singly, or taken together."
According to CMPA, only 7.8 percent and 5.2 percent of total news airtime was devoted to election coverage in Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively, and of all the election coverage, less than five percent was dedicated to House races, nonfederal races and ballot measures - all the local items that viewers wouldn't expect to be covered by the networks.
The groups argued that the stations failed to meet the needs of the community the FCC licenses them to serve.
McGehee said the stations have an FCC-declared obligation to cover issues relevant to their communities, and citizens can't expect to get coverage of local races and ballot measures from the national news networks, so it falls upon the local affiliates to provide such coverage.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents some of the local stations targeted by the watchdog groups, points to its own data that shows that broadcasters cover elections exactly as nearly nine out of 10 Americans want them to do.
According to the late October 2004 poll by Wirthlin Worldwide, 42 percent of adults believe local broadcasters are providing "too much time" covering elections, while 47 percent say local stations are providing "about the right amount of coverage." The poll, with a margin of error of 3.1 percent, found that just 10 percent of the 1,001 Americans surveyed thought local broadcasters provided "too little" coverage of elections.
Dennis Wharton, senior vice president for corporate communications at NAB, said such polling results have been consistent for four election cycles. He added that it's unsurprising that a hotly contested presidential race in the month before the election - the period the CMPA studied - would receive more coverage from local newscasters than local races in Illinois and Wisconsin. The Chicago mayoral race had been heavily covered in the previous year, Wharton noted. Both states had compelling Senate races, as well, and Wisconsin remained relatively uncommitted in the presidential column until late in the campaign.
Wharton said Chicago broadcasters demonstrated a commitment to covering down-ballot races with their comprehensive coverage of Democrat Melissa Bean's successful bid to oust long-serving GOP Rep. Phil Crane from his Chicago-area House district.
The survey period also didn't account for year-long attention to other local political coverage, Wharton added.
In an interview Schwartzman argued that the month-long window is precisely what such a survey demands.
"We were focusing on election coverage," he said. "A month before the election is the relevant time frame. When do candidates by the advertising? They don't buy it two months before the election."
When the FCC adopted new renewal guidelines two decades ago, requirements for local news and public affairs programming were eliminated. Instead, the FCC now cites local stations' "basic responsibility to contribute to the overall discussion of issues confronting the community."
The complaint alleges even those lower standards have not been met, however.
"Some of the stations did absolutely nothing - zero - and one of the foci of this petition was not on the large network affiliates that performed somewhat better than others, but the stations that did absolutely nothing," Schwartzman said.
"How can a station that does absolutely no coverage of local elections possibly be serving their community?" he added. "Half of the stations surveyed had zero."
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