Show and Tell

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last week made a spectacularly rational proposal: Let's require stations to more fully tell the commission and the public just exactly how they are serving the public interest.

To some broadcasters, being told that they have to detail their involvement with the community is the kind of Big Brother intrusion that they say leads to that well-known and invariably slippery slope. And to some Democrats in Congress and at the FCC who oppose media consolidation, this Martin proposal will look too weak, a little regulatory tweak at a time when big media should be required to pay penance for trying to grow their businesses.

We don't buy that. The fact is, most broadcasters could compile a long list of accomplishments, and by making them more public via the Internet, possibly on stations' own Websites, hometown viewers, public interest watchdogs and the FCC would discover that most broadcasters do the right thing.

The National Association of Broadcasters totals up broadcasters' contributions to public service on a biannual basis. In 2005, the total exceeded $10.3 billion in donated airtime, public service announcements, and TV and radio fundraising efforts. It doesn't count the cost of covering emergencies or the resulting loss of ad revenue from going wall-to-wall with an important breaking story.

The list of public service we'd like to see should spotlight what stations do on the air, whether it's in PSAs or just broadcasting hours of news.

Looking to the West Coast, it's clear that Los Angeles and San Diego stations spent hours on wildfire coverage in the last couple of weeks, dropping commercials to do it. They must have lost a good chunk of change, but that is often what serving the public interest is all about.

It's not just out of the goodness of their hearts that they do it; stations that serve well do well when the crises are over, as viewers learn to rely on them. Those that wouldn't have much to report in their public interest documentation to the FCC—and the public—would be easily found out and feel compelled to improve, particularly with the FCC eyeing that documentation at renewal time.

We don't expect minute-by-minute tabulations of how many newscasts or public affairs specials or political debates a station airs. But a detailed, easy-to-access list of how a station serves the public interest should silence the consolidation and Big Media critics. Contrary to their own suspicions, it wouldn't hurt broadcasters if they made it easy for the public to see all that they do for viewers and listeners, each and every day.