Chicago Media Action is disappointed that the Federal Communications Commission rejected CMA's petition to deny against nine Chicago-area TV stations. We appreciate that the FCC is now opting to pursue additional broadcaster disclosure and more meetings between stations and the community. However, CMA feels that these measures and the rest of its licensing review process -- especially pertaining to the dissemination of knowledge of the political process specifically at issue in our license challenge -- remain a far cry from successfully serving the public interest.
The FCC mandate to serve the public interest is laudable in theory but pathetic in practice. For one, how to serve the "public interest" has never been formally defined -- so that any dismal media or policy can be construed as "serving the public interest" in the absence of any overarching public policy standard.
The FCC policy regarding broadcast TV licenses is similarly laudable in theory but pathetic in practice. The point of such broadcast licenses was, and remains, to serve as a mechanism for popular control, where license holders could have their licenses revoked if they failed to serve the public interest. Yet you can count on one hand the number of times that the FCC has actually approved such license challenges, and in all such instances, the FCC only rejected broadcast license renewals only under the order of an outside court.
The difficulty facing nearly anyone who submits a broadcast license challenge is practically insurmountable. The FCC's rejection mentions a number of points supposedly supporting their decision. Among them: (a) there's more to a media station's service than a quantitative analysis like that invoked the petition, (b) the petition is narrowly cast and doesn't reflect the total circumstances of the broadcast license at issue, (c) the petition doesn't prove that the station carried out its efforts to serve the public interest in "bad faith".
We address each of these points in turn:
[a] Rather than dispute the validity or quality of the research invoked in CMA's petition, the FCC implicily invokes a non-measurable qualitative standard. Very often, license challenges are rejected for the opposite reason: challenges are based on anecdotal evidence and are not quantitative enough. Here, the standard is the opposite, but the effect is suspiciously the same.
[b] This implies that any license challenge requires that we record the whole broadcast day for the term of the license (which current U.S. law sets at eight years) on every station at issue and analyze all of that content.
[c] How could anyone prove “bad faith” if there is no working definition of “public interest”? Otherwise, the vast majority of broadcast television, dismal though it may be, is in the “public interest”.
It is little wonder that most people reasonably throw up their hands in disgust at the whole rotten process. But amidst all this, there is reason for optimism: It is precisely a disgust with the U.S. corporate media and the FCC policies which support it which have helped to fuel widespread discontent, and that rising level of discontent is beginning to have an impact.
Media consolidation has been slowed since the outcry of millions of citizens who rejected the FCC’s 2003 controversial media ownership rules rewrite. Likewise, more Americans have entered the fray to demand that the internet remain an open and free medium. And that's only the beginning. The challenges to the FCC and the major media in Chicago and beyond will continue, both within the policy circles, and in the court of public opinion. CMA intends to continue its efforts, and we will join hands with like-minded allies and friends.
We thank our counsel, the Media Access Project, for its efforts, and our colleagues at the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition. We look forward to future efforts to improve the media and improve our society.
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