Washington Watch


Blame the Messenger

Oregon broadcaster says Portland paper got it wrong on TV study

Bill Johnstone, president of the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, has a bone to pick with the Portland Oregonian over comments attributed to him and circulated by media critics in Washington to bolster their push for campaign-finance reform.

In the Dec. 28 story by reporter Betsy Hammond, Johnstone is reported as saying that the 1% of evening newscast time the study found was devoted to state and local campaigns was “more than our fill” and that it was “certainly

adequate given everything else that the public has access to—the Internet, the ads they see and hear, the billboards, the unwelcome calls from candidates.” The quotes were picked up by the AP wire service.

Johnstone says he has asked the newspaper for a retraction; the paper has refused and says it stands by its story.

Unlike recent studies by the University of Wisconsin's NewsLab, which looked only at evening news and were roundly criticized by broadcasters, the Oregon study considered “all local news and all local public-affairs programming,” according to Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, who headed the Alliance for Better Campaigns when it contracted for the study in 2004.

The study was used to buttress a late-December challenge to local commercial TV-station licenses by The Oregon Alliance To Reform Media, or ARM, which charged that the stations had not served the public interest.

The study was paid for by campaign- finance reformer Alliance for Better Campaigns and conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. It was also used to challenge licenses in Milwaukee and Chicago.

Moreover, groups like Media Access Project and the Campaign Legal Center use such studies in their push for more public-interest obligations for broadcasters in FCC revision of media-ownership rules, which is currently under way in Washington.

Oregon TV-station licenses come due Feb. 1, but challenges have a high bar to clear. The FCC uses a two-step process in reviewing license challenges, which can take months. First, it must determine that there are sufficient allegations of fact to support taking the second step, which is to designate the challenge for a hearing before an administrative law judge.

Johnstone says he had not even read the study: “The quotes they attribute to me are not accurate.

“The reporter read to me what she had [from the study],” he continues, “and I said that I felt the stations did everything they needed to do and that it is a station-by-station decision. It's not an industry decision. But I haven't seen the study, so I don't whether it is right or not. I have asked them for a retraction, and they have refused.”

Hammond says her story accurately reflected what he said. She says she found “surprising” the suggestion that the 1% was enough and “went over that and over that” with him.

FCC Puts Studies Online

The FCC says it will make public on its Website all the results, and even drafts, of media-ownership studies it has conducted over the past few years. It is preparing to take another crack at media-ownership rules remanded by a federal court for fixes.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says he is making them public in response to the widespread public interest in the issue. But the FCC doesn't have to make them public if it doesn't want to, he adds, citing the “deliberative process privilege” of the Freedom of Information Act. That widespread public interest includes some complaints last fall from the Hill—namely from deregulation critic Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) over a pair of media-ownership studies that never saw the light of day.

Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman says that he thinks the commission had released the studies because the group had filed a Freedom of Information Act request and was “ready to sue” the FCC.