McCain Takes Another Swing at the First Amendment

The fact that Washington is quickly tightening its fingers around the throats of broadcasters for airing what some term "indecent content" with the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 is apparently not enough. Now, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is filing a new piece of legislation titled, Localism in Broadcasting Reform Act of 2005. Why would he do this? Senator McCain is concerned that television stations are not devoting enough time to local races during the election season and he wants the federal government to mandate they do just that. (A point of clarification: local races means all races but the presidential contest. Also, it's worth noting that Senator McCain apparently has no problem with local coverage on radio but the proposed regulations would apply to radio stations nonetheless.)

How much more time is satisfactory? Senator McCain does not say, other than to conclude that he is certain what time currently being devoted is not enough. What the bill calls for is that the span of a broadcast license be reduced from eight years to three. This way a station must justify its commitment to the "public interest" more frequently.

Senator McCain is basing the need for this legislation on the results of a study of the 2004 campaign season conducted jointly by the University of Southern California Annenberg School and the University of Wisconsin. You can view the full results of the study. It consisted of recording every local newscast in 11 markets during the week of October 4–10, 2004 and breaking down the newscasts to categorize and examine the content. The schools claim, "This 11-market study of local news coverage of politics is the most in-depth research on individual markets ever conducted." Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. I'm not here to challenge the validity of the study.

My problem with Senator McCain's proposed legislation is that it takes us another step closer to a state-controlled media. I'm not suggesting we'll see a scenario anytime soon where the state owns the media and if something unflattering about the government hits the air the news director mysteriously vanishes, never to be seen again. But, I do believe this bill further tightens the bond that already exists between the government and broadcast news organizations. It's a bond that shouldn't exist at all.

During the Senator's press conference, he stated, "Last summer, after hearing similar data, FCC Chairman Michael Powell and I challenged all local broadcast television and radio stations to provide their local communities with significant information on the local political issues facing communities, the local candidates' campaign platforms, and the local candidate debates during the 2004 election."

Senator McCain went on to thank the broadcasters who complied and verified their compliance with documentation. But he then went to say the following. "To those broadcasters whose dismal performance is captured in this study or whose performance was as dismal as the broadcasters in the study, I question how you are meeting your obligation to use the Nation's spectrum to serve the u2018public interest.'”

This raises an interesting question. What is the public interest? As a former broadcaster who had to comply with FCC regulations, I know full well what the federal government believes the public interest is. But is it the same as the public's real interest? No. That is why radio and television stations bury their "public interest" programs in the early Sunday morning time slot. Let's face it; "public interest" is an objective term. We know for certain that the public is truly interested in "Desperate Housewives," "American Idol," and football, to name just a few.

What Senator McCain really means by "public interest" content is the dog-and-pony show that is the two-party political system in the United States. Maybe what Senator McCain fears is that if people were not force-fed the blather that composes most political campaigns in America, they might not pay attention at all. God forbid, they might not vote either!

During each election cycle we see studies that tell us voters don't like negative ads and what they really want to hear about are the issues. Yet, year after year, all we get are negative ads and campaigns of little substance. Somehow this is all television's fault — not the fault of those running for office.

Senator McCain also stated, "One of the most startling statistics from the study is the ratio of political advertisements to candidate news stories aired during a half-hour news cast. Reduced news coverage led candidates to spend over $1.6 billion on television ads in 2004 to introduce themselves to voters, double the amount spent in 2000."

It is a huge supposition to say reduced coverage actually caused an increase in political advertising. Is this to say that if news organizations doubled the amount of time devoted to local elections then the amount of money spent on ads would decrease? Not bloody likely. Campaigns would probably spend even more money to counter the charges made by opposing candidates during the news coverage.

What it seems Senator McCain is implying is that television stations purposely limit the coverage in order to force campaigns to advertise to get their message out. This is not true, though. Anyone who follows local politics knows that a campaign is mostly posturing and there is little real news value in a steady diet of that. Which is why breaking news tends to get more airtime, in general. According to Senator McCain, "Another interesting finding was that eight times more news coverage went to stories about accidental injuries than local elections. From what I can gather, if a local candidate wants to be on television, and cannot afford to advertise, his only hope may be to have a freak accident."

This is a cute line, but all it shows is Senator McCain doesn't understand the medium. Spot news, such as accidental injuries, attracts viewers. Why? I don't know. It just does. Why do people slow down to peep at traffic accidents? If you're a television station, why ask why? Just cover the accidents and you're sure to get viewers. Unlike spot news, political campaigns are not unexpected, timely events. That is why they take a backseat to accidents and the like.

Television stations know their business. If they are not giving the public something it wants, the public will go to the radio, the newspaper, or the Internet to get the information it needs. It's time the federal government reverse course and stop telling broadcasters what the public wants. This bill is another step in the wrong direction. The only thing it lacks is a provision forcing broadcasters to provide free airtime to qualified (read: Republican and Democrat) candidates. But, I fear that is just around the corner.

February 19, 2005