Watchdog Group Bites Stations


A Washington public-interest law firm is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to deny license renewals to every English-language TV station in Chicago and Milwaukee. The stations failed “to meet the needs of their community of license,” the petition states, by inadequately covering local and state politics last fall.

The move is being met with sharp protest from the stations.

In documents filed with the FCC Nov. 1, the Media Access Project (MAP)—as the firm is known—charges that less than 1% of the stations’ newscasts was devoted to non-federal elections in the four-week period leading up to Election Day 2004. “No coverage at all of local elections cannot be comported with [FCC] localism requirements,” says MAP President/CEO Andrew Schwartzman.

Station executives immediately fired back, saying the petitions considered a narrow slice of time and did not give outlets credit for year-long political coverage and non-news programs, such as town- hall meetings and debates.

“This mischaracterizes the extent of local political coverage in the market,” says Frank Biancuzzo, president/general manager for WISN Milwaukee, a Hearst-Argyle ABC affiliate, who adds that WISN expanded newscasts to cover additional political stories and aired live call-in shows with candidates and a mayoral debate.

The petitions are based on a study conducted last fall by the Center for Media and Public Affairs that surveyed election coverage in Chicago, Milwaukee and Portland, Ore. The study examined newscasts and local programming on the five highest-rated stations in those markets. The results, Schwartzman says, show virtually no coverage of non-federal elections.

According to the study, 5.2% of newscast time on Milwaukee’s five highest-rated stations was related to a major election in the four weeks leading up to it. Of that time, 77% was devoted to the presidential and Senate races, while Wisconsin elections and ballot issues counted for 4%. As a result, the study says, less than 1% of total news time covered state and local elections.

In Chicago, the stations dedicated 7.8% of news time to election coverage, with the presidential and Senate campaigns accounting for 79%. Under 1% of news time, says the survey, went to local politics.

MAP is seeking to have the FCC revoke stations’ licenses in Chicago and Milwaukee, as renewals for Illinois and Wisconsin come up later this year. The stations have 30 days to respond.

“We believe this petition is without merit, and we will vigorously defend the allegations in proceedings before the FCC,” said Doug Kiel, CEO of Journal Broadcasting, which owns NBC affiliate WTMJ Milwaukee.

NBC says WMAQ and sister Telemundo station WSNS aired a combined minimum of 30 minutes per day of local political coverage.

“As broadcasters, we have a responsibility to our viewers—not to special-interest groups—to provide them with timely and relevant news coverage and information,” says a WMAQ spokesperson.

Sparking Public Debate

It’s unlikely the FCC will revoke the licenses. When the commission adopted its current renewal guidelines in 1984, it eliminated programming requirements for local news and public affairs—although it did cite local broadcasters’ “basic responsibility to contribute to the overall discussion of issues confronting the community.”

Such watchdog maneuvers help spark public debate, says former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, head of communications at United Church of Christ. “What is clear,” she says, “is that what viewers think about their communities matters.”

Schwartzman says his organization will probe other markets and possibly file more petitions: “We are trying to get the FCC to adopt policy and make sure they enforce broadcasters’ obligations.”

Local broadcasters believe they’re meeting their obligations. “They have a right to file this petition,” says Biancuzzo, “but it is misleading, irresponsible and unfair.”

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