The Federal Communications Commission issued its first fines for a station airing Armstrong Williams’ Department of Education-paid-for plugs for its “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Station-owner Sinclair Broadcast Group doesn’t plan to pay the fine and said it will take the commission to court.
The revelation of those payments caused a firestorm of criticism and a dressing-down of the DOE, and it led to payola complaints by Free Press at the FCC.
The FCC Thursday fined Sonshine's WBPH-TV Bethlehem, Pa., for airing five episodes (a total of 10 times) of The Right Side with Armstrong Williams, and Sinclair a total of $76,000 for airing America's Black Forum. Both were cited for violating the FCC's sponsorship-identification rules.
Sonshine was fined $40,000 for airing The Right Side with Armstrong Williams in exchange for "valuable consideration" and without identifying that fact to viewers. Sinclair was cited for airing "supplied" material "in connection with political matter or the discussion of a controversial issue," without disclosing who furnished the material, as is also required by sponsorship-disclosure rules. The FCC cited an airing of America's Black Forum on Sinclair stations for the $36,000 fine.
Sonshine admitted to being paid $100 for each show, but it argued that it was a nominal consideration and that it had no knowledge that Williams' production company had been paid to include any messages in the broadcast and had "no basis on which to conclude that a sponsorship announcement was required."
Sinclair said it did not air any of Williams shows, but it did acknowledge that nine of its stations aired an episode of public-affairs show America's Black Forum during which Williams discussed No Child Left Behind and without any sponsorship ID. Sinclair added that it wasn't paid to air the show and that it could have had no knowledge that "anyone had received or was promised any consideration" for the views expressed.
The commission concluded that the $100 was "money exchanged for airtime" and required an identification. As for Sinclair, the commission said that the complete show, 2004 Election Countdown, was furnished to Sinclair by Williams' production company and dealt with "political broadcasting matter" that Sinclair was obliged to say came from Williams.
The FCC said the fines represented the base amount, $4,000, applied to the 10 Sonshine airings and the single show on nine Sinclair stations.
"This practice of ‘payola pundits’ is a threat to quality journalism and public discourse,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, which filed the complaints.”It is imperative that the Congress tighten the rules and ensure that the practice ceases entirely and permanently."
"My expectation is that we will not pay and will go to court," Sinclair vice president and general counsel Barry Faber said. "We think it is a misguided decision by the FCC to fine a televvision stations that put on a public-affairs program for which it received no consideration."
The FCC two weeks ago issued its first-ever fines against sponsorship-identification violations, citing video-news releases aired by Comcast. More such fines are expected to be levied against TV stations.