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When Fairness Became a Four-Letter Word

by Barry Nolan

Over the 28 years I have been in television, I have interviewed a lot of people that seemed to be having "issues" with the truth. Killers, rapists, hookers, scam artists, even O. J. Simpson. And in all that time I have only had one person walk out of an interview when their veracity was challenged. He was a TV executive for Sinclair Broadcasting.

It was fall of 2004, and Sinclair Broadcasting had ordered its 62 local stations to preempt prime time programming in order to broadcast an anti-John Kerry film, just before the November general election. Their stations included affiliates of all the networks in the swing states of Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania. The effort was cross-promoted by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth gang.

During the interview, I pointed out to the Sinclair exec the demonstrable fact that the film asserted a host of things that were somewhere between utter rubbish and sheer nonsense. The Sinclair "suit" took umbrage and left in a huff during a commercial break. Sinclair apparently felt I was some how being unfair to ask about matters of fact. This seems a bit inconsistent in light of the fact that Sinclair is dead set against the return of the Fairness Doctrine.

Sinclair reaches about 22% of the country, and is by no means the only media giant to be a bit small minded when it comes what messages are permitted on the public airways. In September of 2006, a conservative leaning Clear Channel Television station in Syracuse NY pulled an ad that was critical of Rep. Jim Walsh after Walsh's campaign complained that the ad unfairly claimed that republican Walsh agreed with his republican President about the war in Iraq. The message continued to run on other local stations.

And this month, Clear Channel took down a billboard ad in the Minneapolis Airport that featured an anti-nuclear weapons message from the Union of Concerned Scientists after it received a complaint from Northwest Airlines. The said the message was "scary". Northwest is the official airline of the Republican National Convention being held in Minneapolis. Clear Channel owns over 900 radio stations and is the dominant outdoor billboard advertising company in the country.

The are plenty of examples out there that speak to the fact that if a small handful of enormously rich and powerful and typically conservative people who run the giant-and-getting-bigger media conglomerates in this country don't like you, your candidate or your message, their vote is going to be the only one that counts. No media and no message for you pal. Even though you, the people, own those airwaves. There is something seriously wrong with this picture.

Giant Corporate Media always has always had their thumbs on the scales to some degree. But it's never been this bad. Back in 1980, in what is now viewed by many as a Golden Age of local television, I was working for that sunny genial, family friendly program, "Evening Magazine" at WBZ-TV in Boston.

It was a time when the Fairness Doctrine was still in place, and TV stations were required by the FCC to be of service to the communities in which they were based. WBZ had locally produced shows for children, senior citizens and minorities. It produced documentaries on serious subjects such as rape and unchecked development on Cape Cod. In short, compared to what we find today, 'BZ was a solid gold corporate citizen.

But there was one "radioactive" subject that folks at the station were just never going to touch. And that was the safety of nuclear power. WBZ-TV was owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting, which was in turn owned by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, maker of fine refrigerators, elevators and nuclear power plants. The "do not touch" rule was not because there was no interest in such a wonkish subject. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island still felt fresh, raw, and scary. Jane Fonda had just received an Oscar nomination for her role in "The China Syndrome". And late night comics were throwing out "glow in the dark" jokes at every possible opportunity. It was a hot topic. But at 'BZ, it was "radioactive" in the most pejorative sense of the word because it would be bad for the parent corporation. No entrepreneurial stories on the risks and benefits of nuclear power. No documentaries on Three Mile Island. No "shocking expose' tonight at 11".

I am reasonably certain that there was never any Sinclair-like directive to "ix-nay the overage-cay". I would be surprised if there was even a "wink-wink nod-nod". But people knew. Even back then, they self edited. They wanted to keep their jobs. They looked out for number one. It was just the way things were. A Westinghouse station was not going to be giving coverage to nuclear safety issues.

And that was in the Golden Years. Back when it was about the best it is ever likely to be as far as community interests and truth being served. Back when the maximum number of television stations nationwide that a corporation could own was 7. Back when those ownership caps were found to be constitutional because, unlike the world of print, there are technical limits to the number of TV and radio frequencies. You can't just set up your own TV or radio station if you think the ones in your community aren't getting the job done. Try it and the cops will come and shut you down.

So, in return for their monopoly on broadcast frequencies, license holders agreed to serve the community and the Fairness Doctrine declared that license holders had an affirmative obligation to cover important topics and to present both sides of issues. But 'buhbye to all that.

If you have ever wondered how that soothing soft jazz radio station you once listened to morphed into a loud vituperative all-talk station that features a line up of all-conservatives all the time, it's because the Fairness Doctrine was repealed during the Reagan administration.

And now, the Bush FCC wants to permit outfits like Sinclair to own as many television stations nationwide as it wants, as long as the stations collectively reach less than 39 percent of the national audience. The democrats are against the changes and have voted to withhold any funds for the FCC that could be used to implement the proposed changes. And Nancy Pelosi has discussed the idea of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. Call them up and tell them you love them if you miss the good ol' days. Before Sinclair could safely abandon "Fairness" and before Fox News brought you their own cynically branded self-branded "fair and balanced" version of the world.

In a media environment where so many important and complicated issues are reduced to slogans that fit on bumper stickers, perhaps what is needed now to encourage Congress to do what it can to make the media more responsive to the owners of the airwaves and more likely to produce content that is at least within rock throwing distance of fair and true. We need a pithy slogan in favor of reasonable caps on media ownership and a return to the concepts of the Fairness Doctrine. I think my personal bumper sticker is going to be:

"George Bush thinks Fairness is a four letter word."

How about you?

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