OK, let's bring back the Fairness Doctrine, only let's impose it on the Internet rather than on broadcasting. And allow me the honor of making the first complaint against GreedyTV.org, which was launched two weeks ago at a Washington press conference with the aim of shaming TV stations into giving more free airtime to candidates by showing how much they get from campaign advertising.
The product of Paul Taylor and his Alliance for Better Campaigns, the site has come up with some interesting data. With a few clicks, you can find out, for instance, that WPXI(TV) Pittsburgh has collected $938,361 or that KFSN(TV) Fresno has picked up $1.2 million.
My gripe is not what's on the site, but what isn't-that is, a fair accounting of the services TV stations do perform to make sure we have an informed electorate. In the GreedyTV world, if a station agrees to provide five minutes a day for "candidate discourse," it's a "good" station. If it doesn't, it's just one of the "greedies."
What's missing? For starters, any mention of the valuable prime time that the Big Three networks are dedicating next month to the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Each debate is 90 minutes long. So the three networks will devote 18 hours of prime time to the debates. Assuming $150,000 per 30-second spot and 16 minutes of commercial time per hour, those 18 hours constitute a revenue loss of $86.4 million.
Now, to me, $86.4 million represents a pretty serious commitment to our political process and, by itself, justifies whatever campaign bucks the networks and their affiliates get from the campaigns. Keep in mind that the networks have no obligation to carry the debates.
Also keep in mind that the networks carry the debates even though they have no control or say over how the debates are formatted or who does the questioning-a circumstance that must gall the serious journalists at the networks. That's all worked out by the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates, which stages the debates without the benefit of one media executive or journalist on its board of directors.
And yet, the networks carry the debates; primarily because they are news, but also because not to would be to tick off every politician in Washington, including those that can use FCC regulations and the antitrust lawyers at Justice and the FTC to make or break the networks' next business deal.
Aside from action under the restored Fairness Doctrine, GreedyTV might also be guilty of deceiving the public through selective use of facts.
It complains that, in the days before the March 7 primaries, the network affiliates devoted less than 40 seconds a day to "candidate discourse." But if you check with the Annenberg School of Communications, the source of the 40-second claim, you'll find that it includes only programming between 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.
It excludes all the non-prime time campaign coverage on morning, noon and 4 p.m. newscasts, on the Sunday talk shows like Meet the Press and late-night shows like Nightline.
And search all you want through the site, but you'll find no mention of the many other contributions that TV stations make and that the National Association of Broadcasters carefully documents. Don't the NBC affiliates in New York State get any credit for their carriage of the Lazio-Clinton debate?
In an effort to get people to support its "five-minute fix," GreedyTV uses the same cheap tricks as the campaign spots its sponsors profess to abhor. Paul Taylor would do well to revert to the ethics of the journalist he was and abandon those of the advocate he has become.
Jessell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 212-337-6964.