Excuses, excuses

Without the FCC to blame, how will broadcasters justify their timidity?

Oh, now that they don't have to worry about giving time for a reply to a personal attack or an editorial endorsing a candidate, we can expect broadcasters to begin taking controversial stances left and right.

Please, don't make me laugh.

Unfortunately, a lot of television and radio stations didn't need a rule to be timid and bland. It's what they do. Take away the folksy weatherman and the nutty sports anchor, and what you have left at hundreds of stations are grind-it-out news shops that are spineless repackagers of the morning paper.

Few television and radio stations are opinion leaders, and the suggestion that the FCC's rules chilled them is just a cold canard (if you'll excuse the pun). They were never in the game.

Since 1987, when repeal of the Fairness Doctrine left intact only the rules of personal attack and political editorial response, broadcasters have been barely affected:

For each of those years, the FCC received an average of three or four complaints from politicians about a station that hadn't afforded them a chance to respond to an editorial endorsing their opponent;

And on average, the commission got 25 to 30 complaints a year alleging a station had made a personal attack, and the FCC rejected almost all of them.

In short, these rules didn't inhibit much, except the fact that some aggrieved source might try, in vain, to invoke them. But under the personal-attack rules struck down last week, reporters could say pretty much whatever they wanted in a newscast, as commentary or analysis. Candidates could say whatever they wanted; so could their aides. And anybody could say anything about foreign groups or foreign public figures. Foreigners specifically weren't covered by the rules (there's an Ugly American fact).

It is hard to tell, actually, how one could have made a personal attack that would trigger the FCC's disapproval.

The political-endorsement rules say, if a station endorses a candidate, the station must inform opponents and offer them a chance to respond. Big deal. It's just a matter of remembering to make a phone call or write a couple letters, and free up two minutes of airtime.

But it wasn't the FCC that was nipping at newscasters; the problem was in the front office.

These were stupid rules. I'm not saying they weren't. But I would argue that they didn't put huge roadblocks in the way of a station that wanted to have some punch.

And why don't stations shake things up at 6 and 11? Next to sex, nothing much sells better than controversy, or, more plainly, a good, tough story that roils the status quo, or a reporter's against-the-grain point of view that gets people thinking.

American newspapers, which are lame enough these days themselves, still manage to employ disagreeable columnists and cranky editorial writers the whole town loves to hate.

On television and radio, the editorial or pointed commentary is a rare event. I wonder why. So what if a television station editorial said-assuming the facts supported it-that Mayor Blowhard was a liar and incompetent, and so what if the station might feel pressure to allow the mayor to respond? How horrible is that?

Oh, no! Ouch! An exclusive with the city's top elected official? What a calamity.

Maybe it is historical. The Fairness Doctrine and its personal-attack and editorial-response provisions might have seemed uncomfortable enough that general managers, news directors and their corporate lawyers decided long ago that if they had nothing nice to say, they should just shut up. So that's what a lot of them did. No great tradition evolved.

And they didn't ask for feedback. They ran away away from it, actually. Few television and radio stations provide anything like those "letters to the editor" forums for viewers. You can scarcely talk back to television or radio. Why is this so? It's not a Fairness Doctrine thing; it's a fairness thing.

Don't local newscasts get letters and complaints? Isn't the station invested enough in the community to do strong editorials? Maybe not. Lots of television and radio stations are run these days by well-paid transients who don't know (and couldn't care less) about problems in their communities, won't spend the resources to find out and, frankly, wouldn't want to offend their car-dealer cronies by coming out on the wrong side of an issue. Far too many stations don't have the nerve or journalistic chops to have a truly controversial opinion.

If you disagree, we'd print your letter to the editor. It won't kill us.

Bednarski can be reached at pbednarski@cahners.com or at 212-337-6965.