We know many of the nation's television stations take their obligation to the public seriously, though certainly some more than others.
And we have respect for advocacy groups like the Media Access Project (MAP), which regularly throws punches at big media. That has a way of keeping stations honest.
Still, MAP seemed off point last week when it joined with the Campaign Legal Center in filing petitions to the FCC challenging the license renewals of all commercial TV stations in Chicago and Milwaukee (see page 12).
The centerpiece of their petition was a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. It concludes that, in the month before the November 2004 elections, stations in those cities devoted just 1% of their news time to coverage of local or state races and issues. Ipso facto, that meant the stations weren't serving the public interest of their viewers by spending time covering other things, including the presidential and Senate races.
What nonsense. Television news directors use the same criteria as other journalists do to determine what is newsworthy. If there had been a mayoral election in Chicago, you can bet it would have been covered. Chicago is all about local politics. But the mayoral election was in 2003. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was one of those battleground states that George Bush and John Kerry fought over, making the presidential race an extremely compelling local story in Milwaukee. What's more, WISN, the Hearst-Argyle ABC affiliate there, carried live call-in shows with candidates and aired a mayoral debate.
The monitors looked at newscasts and public-affairs programs, not all the other programs that stations presented, such as debates (Chicago's ABC station, WLS, aired two senatorial debates). And the monitors did their tabulating only in the month before the election.
The petition also complains the stations spent too much time covering the “horse-race” aspects of campaigns, not the issues. That means these petitioners are also asking to deny license renewals because they didn't like the way stories were covered. It's fine to be critical of campaign coverage, but it's not a reason to revoke a license.
MAP points out that, in 1984, the FCC eliminated program guidelines for news and public affairs but the commission reminded stations they still have the “basic responsibility to contribute to the overall discussion of issues confronting the community.”
By allegedly ignoring local politics prior to the election, therefore, the stations violated that trust. But that's a judgment that can't be made based on scanning one month's worth of programs and using narrow criteria. We don't believe the stations in Chicago or Milwaukee are negligent or deserve the aggravation of responding to this challenge. We hope the FCC agrees.