EditorialsCommitted to the First Amendment 9/07/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern
With Studies Like These …
Sometimes broadcasters make it tough to defend them. Last week was one of those times. We're talking specifically about the highly touted, network-commissioned study on public attitudes toward media ownership. We agree with the networks that the FCC's 45% ownership cap on audience reach should not be rolled back, last week's stay notwithstanding. We even recognize why they felt the need to counter the misperception that there is a broad-based public disaffection with broadcast networks. But they needed to try, try again with this study, which never should have seen the light of day.
Instead, the networks are using the findings in a public campaign on Capitol Hill to push for preservation of the 45% cap. They did nothing to buttress their point by spotlighting a study that reads like the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders analyzing a Cowboys-Redskins game.
NASA's Alan Frank characterized the poll as an effort to validate slogans; he's right. Though the research company would not release all of the questions, their "memorandum" to interested parties provides unintended ammunition to anyone opposed to the networks' position, particularly delivered as it was with pom-pom–waving backflips of enthusiasm for questions so obviously leading.
Those questions—mostly statements, actually—were on the order of "no politician should get between me and my TV," "Washington should not reverse the trend toward more choice in television programming," and "Washington should not reverse the trend toward more local news and public affairs programming." The implied "right?" on the end of each statement is like the proverbial other shoe poised to drop.
As editorial writers, we know well the power of subtle word choice to influence outcomes, but there is nothing subtle in this telegraphed punch. The networks don't need to resort to sleight-of-phrase maneuvers to make their case, but, sadly, you couldn't tell that from this study.
Stay It Ain't So
The broadcast-ownership-rule changes 20 months in the making by the independent expert agency charged with that task have now been blocked by the courts and may be delayed another year, if they ever take effect. It is a testament to the power of a handful of conservative and liberal anti-dereg groups masquerading as an outraged vox populi. We fear that those groups have scored a trifecta, having 1) prompted Michael Powell to initiate a localism inquiry that could chill content, 2) convinced Congress it needs to step in and reregulate to placate the home folks, and 3) perhaps swayed federal judges, who in their decision to stay ownership-rule changes cited the "magnitude of this matter and the public's interest in reaching the proper resolution." (The proper resolution had already been reached June 2.) Of course, they have also handed a victory to Clear Channel, which got a reprieve from selling any stations or unwinding JSAs, prevented the FCC from closing a radio-market loophole, and potentially held up transfers for small- and medium-sized companies. What a mess.