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Talkers magazine, the "Bible of Talk Radio" reported yesterday on an FCC complaint lodged against two Milwaukee stations for biased coverage of the Scott Walker recall election. Legal affairs editor Steven Weisman cut to the heart of the debate after a Wisconsin radio monitoring group reported crushing pro-Walker imbalance in booking guests, commentary and air time during the critical "election period" preceding Tuesday's election.

Weisman noted that the right wing talkers must either comply with equal time requests, or qualify as bonafide "news interview" broadcasts. He asks readers:

" the shows qualify as news interview programs? The FCC has taken a broad interpretation of the term "news interview program" recognizing that the public gets its "news" from sources that would not previously have been considered to be conventional "news interview programs." The unwritten standard appears to be that shows where the station and host have the ultimate control over the questions asked during the program can meet the standard of "news interview programs."

Using this standard, the FCC has granted the exception to such diverse shows as "The Phil Donahue Show," "Good Morning America," "Politically Incorrect," "Sally Jessy Raphael," "Geraldo" and even both "The Howard Stern Show" and "The Jerry Springer Show."

Based on these rulings, it seems the FCC hasn't considered this for quite a while, particularly in the muddy waters of the post-Citizens United era.

Laundering Political Payola Through Ad Buys

New to the debate is the prevalence of superPAC advertising or "charter sponsorship" endorsement deals like the contract forged between the Heritage Foundation and the Hannity and Limbaugh shows, in which "live reads" are easily confused with show content. Resembling one-sided "infomercial" time they could be considered "in kind contributions" subject to reporting and electioneering laws.

Another crucial issue in recent elections has been bald on-air fundraising for campaigns - exclusive to particular candidates. Controversy over direct contributions to candidates by media figures from Rupert Murdoch to Keith Olbermann has also been making headlines for years.

But despite FCC guidelines condemning bias in broadcasting, we haven't seen rulings on political talk shows, enforcing equal time during elections. The FCC says it does act to "protect the public interest where it has received documented evidence of such rigging or slanting."

In this case, the watchdog group documented WTMJ and WISN devoting an average of 120 minutes of pro-Walker or pro-Republican editorializing for every minute of air time in support of Democrats. Weisman continues:

"It would seem then that where the particular show and station used its own discretion to choose the guest on a show and where at least some of the time during its regular programming provided discussions of political matters, the show would come within the "news interview program" exception.

However, if it can be proved as alleged by Sue Wilson and the Media Action Center that these Milwaukee radio stations consistently only interviewed or promoted a single candidate without ever providing air time to his opponent, it is not only possible, but likely that the FCC would not apply the exception and would require equal time for the other candidates.

The FCC rules on this matter may have a significant effect on the upcoming Fall national and state elections."

Kudos to Talkers for recognizing the ramifications of this - no less than a fight over legalizing domestic propaganda.

This is a serious issue for top-rated radio giants Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, but also hundreds more "template" hosts who cower from open debate, prune callers and book only "compatible" guests.

Unlike GMA or Howard Stern, these market leaders are not "morning shows" or talk, gossip, entertainment or comedy shows, they are almost entirely political and have long influenced the public on elections, wars and every major policy issue by cherrypicking "news", guests and commentary.

FCC officials discussing this case recently revealed a key factor is determining and evidencing "political intent", for example the express desire to influence elections. Yet again, the proof is ample - from these talk hosts themselves, from their promos and their executives. Jerry Bott, director of programming and operations at WISN radio in Milwaukee in his own words:

"Hosts on conservative talk radio affect public opinion by making a convincing case that conservative principles are powerful, proper, and effective.

This has an effect on public opinion in areas where conservative talk radio can be heard which, in turn, provides a fertile environment for conservatives seeking public office to be elected."

Rush Limbaugh was inducted as an "honorary member" of the Republican House Caucus after their 1994 landslide, confirming the talk host was the single most important contributor to their victory.

The Case For Propaganda is...More Propaganda

We've heard bellicose defense of the right to openly broadcast in bias, claiming the First Amendment trumps the public interest. Despite those calling for the right to be intentionally misinformed, the law says if it's over the publicly owned airwaves, they have to allow the full story to come out.

In filing FCC applications, broadcasters acknowledge that the privilege to use limited public bandwidth comes with a responsibility to allow opportunity for all major candidates to present relevant facts informing political affairs, and specifically to prioritize the public interest over their own interest.

Today's personality-driven shows clearly include on-air electioneering, yet also claim exemptions carved out for "news interview" shows.

Complainant Sue Wilson of the Media Action Center reminds us there is a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding of how public airwaves can be used for political "free speech" with the largest talk hosts in the country flouting the Communications Act of 1934 (47 USC Section 315) or "Zapple Doctrine," which stipulates that in the 60 days prior to an election, broadcasters who provide airtime to one candidates' views must allow time for the other side if requested.

Over the decades, the FCC has refused to enforce this provision, and the public has been unaware, confused, misled or apathetic to the issue - until now.

A bonafide "news interview" show, according to the law, must be "non-partisan, not supporting any candidates". This is cut and dry, folks.

Limbaugh and Hannity's broadcasts clearly segregate "news" reports on the hour from show content. But even if you buy that Hannity's cavalcade of conservative guests and lopsided caller selections somehow constitute balance, the veneer is shattered in the show's intro when they tout themselves as "The Stop Obama Express".

We've heard for years that right wing radio is under attack because the left cannot compete in the marketplace. This is a lie so bold, the right disproves it themselves every time the accuse the "mainstream media" of being "in the tank" for the left. It can't be both, can it?

Many contend that right wing radio is not as profitable as we think, nor a result of free market consumer choice, rather the partisan, pro-corporate voices we hear every day were installed in key markets in order to crystallize public opinion with political messaging. Here, Forbes confirms that Clear Channel's entire radio broadcasting division is but "a loss leader".

For starters, Fox News lost hundreds of millions, some $450 million in their first five years. The reason they were able to last and become profitable was because owner Rupert Murdoch's News Corp was willing to bleed so much money.

But it's even more entangled. From it's earliest days, News Corp also had incredible help from Wall Street. In the "Black Monday" stock market crash of 1990, News Corp survived by getting extra-awesome sweetheart terms from banks who held off collecting about $7 billion in debt.

Murdoch, known for bartering free publicity for favors became a shill for Wall Street, blurring the line between news and planted PR over the years.

Another myth is that liberal shows are not popular: if you want to call NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition liberal, it's had ratings comparable to Limbaugh and Hannity for years and years, blasting their "free market" argument to bits.

In fact, the problem with Air America may have been that they relied on corporate America for advertising while NPR is largely listener-supported. How can you expect corporate sponsors to line up if you are reporting on the corrupting influence of industry money in politics?

Former Air America host Rachel Maddow is an example of this. Now the anchor of the MSNBC franchise, her show features paid commercials that promote everything from high-fructose corn syrup to hydrofracking. This proves that sponsors will spend millions on liberal shows, every night.

Does Romney Own Limbaugh and Hannity?

Next we have Bain Capital. As part owner of Clear Channel the syndicator of Limbaugh, Hannity and the other big talk hosts, it's no wonder they all favor Mitt Romney, Bain's co-founder who still collects millions every year from Bain in a retirement package.

Bain is a major shareholder in the Clear Channel media behemoth, but Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and RBS are also investors, meaning it's in talk radio's interest to broadcast from the capitalist/corporatist point of view and shut down criticism during a crucial election period.

Ironically, Bain and it's partners even plundered Clear Channel. When Bain and it's partners acquired Clear Channel in July 2008, they loaded it with unsustainable debt, making it a $20 billion dollar time bomb. By January of 2009, the company laid off 9% of the total workforce, almost 2,000 employees to boost  interest payments to investors. Last October, hundreds more DJs and staff were fired to further cut costs.

Hannity and Limbaugh don't seem to mind that their company had it's assets raided, because they are paid for their political impact, not their profitability. Clear Channel's profit centers are big market music stations, while 38-station affiliates like Cumulus lose millions on the Rush Limbaugh Show.

The programs we watch and hear are the result of decades of media consolidation and industry lobbying, reducing competitiveness, localization and diversity in a highly manipulated marketplace. This is not about the defunct Fairness Doctrine or censorship, this is about the rights of citizens to challenge and rebut lies, distortions and manipulations made over public US airwaves. Are we for or against propaganda?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thom Hartmann, Who Was in Broadcasting in the 70's (11+ / 0-)

    points to the one-time or once-enforced FCC public service requirement for broadcasting. When it was legislated there was of course no cable broadcasting or internet, so the limited public airwave space caused the FCC to license access to stations in exchange for fees and a regular, every-few-years demonstration of providing programming in the public interest.

    He says this was much more important than the fairness doctrine.

    In order to keep regulators from messing with their lucrative entertainment programming, almost all stations no matter how small maintained a news staff. To prove that their news programming was truly in the public interest they maintained strict firewalls between the sales department and the news.

    I think it would be trivial to demonstrate that these stations are not providing public interest programming, if that requirement still exists and might still be enforced. Because of our problematic speech and press freedoms, it's always dicey to get into content and balance, but I'd think it's easier to show that an outlet is doing little to nothing other than advancing its own interests without having to get into partisan specifics of expression.

    To my mind this is a reason to nationalize the cable and satellite distribution infrastructure too so that programming in those domains can be licensed and saddled with the public interest requirement.

    There's a 2 hour program that runs periodically on the historyish channels consisting solely of broadcast content from the days around the JFK assassination. No present day narration or discussion is included, nothing but a handful of text captions on screen to clarify some particular scene or figures. People of our time need to see this and study the performance and intellectual quality of the many broadcasters, reporters and other participants, compared to what's seen in our sorry media today.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 06:02:14 AM PDT

    •  Bias broadcasters lack of shame (0+ / 0-)

      Yes, I called this FCC complaint to Hartmann's attention on last Friday's show. In response, Thom reminded his audience that he always extends an open invitation for open on-air discussion with right wing guests.

      There are some interesting comments below and it's agreed nothing taking aim at Limbaugh and Hannity's propaganda would ever get past this Supreme Court.

      But looking at precedent, the FCC has not weighed in for quite some time, even following major changes in the broadcast landscape.

      You rightly point out that broadcasting of old was much different and anyone born after the Fairness Doctrine was stuck down would have few examples of quality reporting or commentary.

      Since this is an existential fight for future generations to be well informed on critical issues, and no one is disputing that talk radio is in fact lying by omission every single day, the only important question here is whether the FCC is going to be guarding the public interest in the face of massive propaganda operations closely coordinated between political party and multi-tentacled billionaire cabals.

  •  Two different things. (8+ / 0-)
    This is not about the defunct Fairness Doctrine or censorship, this is about the rights of citizens to challenge and rebut lies, distortions and manipulations made over the public airwaves.
    Citizens absolutely, positively, have the right to "challenge and rebut lies, distortions and manipulations made over the public airwaves."  Whether the government -- the FCC -- has the "right" to evaluate whether statements by citizens are "lies, distortions, and manipulations" is a completely different issue, and there the First Amendment, and the defunct fairness doctrine, do come into play.  In other words, those are two different things:  (1) citizens' challenge to bad speech (through speech of their own)  -- protected under the First Amendment; and (2) government restricting political speech because government finds that political speech unacceptable --  exactly the kind of thing the First Amendment was designed to protect against.  

    As I understand it, the Zapple Doctrine is an FCC rule that was a corollary to the Fairness Doctrine.  Its viability at this point is questionable, since the FCC essentially repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

    Moreover, I'm not sure whether the Fairness Doctrine or the Zapple Doctrine would, today, survive First Amendment scrutiny.   The Fairness Doctrine was adopted in 1949, when citizens had very limited options in broadcast news, and those options were limited to the so-called "public airwaves."  The Fairness Doctrine, as a limit on the First Amendment, would have to survive the highest level of scrutiny.  In 1949, it was justified on the basis that the only "broadcast" outlets available were the public airwaves, and there were significant limits on how many networks could broadcast.  Today, with the widespread access of cable (and, indeed, the internet), I have a difficult time seeing the SCOTUS finding a basis for such a significant limitation on the First Amendment.   I have a difficult time seeing the SCOTUS allowing the government (with all the broadcast outlets available today) to step back into a role of deciding which "opposing views" deserve "equal time," for example.  

    •  I agree, after CUD, the SCOTUS ruling (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sychotic1, Smoh, certainot

      on a "fairness doctrine" is pretty obvious. One interpretation of the CUD ruling is that money is free speech, no? Fox and CC bought their market saturation fair and square.

      "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

      by farmerchuck on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 06:15:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  "Money is speech" is not a function of CU (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        It dates from a per curiam decision in 1976 called Buckley v. Valeo where the SCOTUS held that the federal government could not limit how much of someone's own money that person, or group of people, could spend on a campaign.  

        •  Sorry, I was mistaken...Not up to date on my case (0+ / 0-)

          law and precedents. Well at least we have the free market to make everything right in the end.

          "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

          by farmerchuck on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 07:22:11 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  The Post-WWII ban on domestic propaganda (0+ / 0-)

      The "scarcity" issue shouldn't matter much IMO - whether there is only one channel or thousands, the question is whether the broadcasts are causing some form of injury that needs remediation.

      It took years, but DJs in Rwanda who had incited hate speech over the air were given life sentences, and the station owners were held accountable as well.

      In the US, it would be possible to bring lawsuits for misleading reporting on specific issues, depending on the harm alleged. Especially in bringing widespread media attention.

      One example would be if the Wisconsin Democratic Party claimed injury due to documented falsehoods and documented the denials of fair rebuttal time, they could at least apply pressure in the right direction.

      I've definitely been following Hannity's radio broadcasts since the start of the recall election period and it's clear he has been distorting which side has been funded by outside money.

      He mentioned daily the millions coming from unions, but never mentioned the outside corporate backers of Walker, or the comparative amounts involved, a frequently repeated lie of omission dripping with hypocrisy. To condemn outside money in principle but withhold that Walker did it ten times worse is indefensible, yet somehow legal.

  •  Good Luck! (6+ / 0-)

    I don't think it stands a chance in hell of working in this instance but we need to keep chipping away at them.

    Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.

    by Horace Boothroyd III on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 06:18:09 AM PDT

  •  Well, that's a waste of time. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    coffeetalk, nextstep
    do the shows qualify as news interview programs?
  •  DailyKos is the rejoinder. Educate not subjugate. (0+ / 0-)

    "If the past sits in judgment on the present, the future will be lost." Winston Churchill

    by Kvetchnrelease on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 06:39:01 AM PDT

  •  You misstate the Zapple Doctrine (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, coffeetalk
    broadcasters who provide airtime to one candidates' views must provide time for the other side as well.
    Not so.  The equal time doctrine provides that broadcasters that give time to candidates, not their views, must provide equal time to other candidates.  When the FCC tried to retain the political editorial doctrine (which seems substantially identical to your reading of the Zapple doctrine), it was shot down by the court in Radio-Television News Directors Ass'n v. FCC, 184 F. 3d 872 (link)
    •  I see now that the Zapple Doctrine is (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      coffeetalk, VClib

      a touch different.  The FCC interpretive letter that launched the doctrine is here.  It involved purchases of broadcast time by candidates' supporters, rather than editorializing by broadcasters, though.  Subsequent secondary sources seem to take a broader view of it, although it's not clear what they base that broadening on.

  •  I live in a state that voted for President Obama (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    farmerchuck, jayden, adrianrf, certainot

    in 2008. So obviously there are millions of Democrats and/or independent voters here. But to hear a Democratic or even Independent talk show host, I had to subscribe to satellite radio.  If radio markets and business decisions were controlling what we hear on the airwaves, there would be at least one center or left leaning talk show.  So I am not buying the idea that conservative talk simply won out in the market.

    Where are all the jobs, Boehner?

    by Dirtandiron on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 07:40:25 AM PDT

    •  Right wing talk hasn't won the market... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wilderness voice

      what is HAS won is the battle for WHICH format radio station ownership will choose to put on air in order to get ADVERTISING DOLLARS...

      I don't think ANYONE attempts to build a radio station without SOME idea of how the bills are going to be paid - unless, of course, the radio station is merely a propaganda loss-leader for a company (or religion) that already makes money in another field, and can afford to subsidize the loss...

      Case in point - Fox News...

      For a better America, vote the GOP out of office whenever and wherever possible and as soon (and as often) as possible!

      by dagnome on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 08:39:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not sure about Fox, but I know that (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Murdoch owns the NY Post, and he does not make money on it. It is to spread his point of view, and possibly also a tax break.

        Where are all the jobs, Boehner?

        by Dirtandiron on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 08:46:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Fox news lost money for several years... (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dirtandiron, jayden, adrianrf

          Im' pretty sure it was only Murdoch's deep pockets that kept it alive, when it would not have survived on its own...

          Murdoch makes plenty of money form the other enterprises he owns worldwide, including the Fox TV network, and 20th Century Fox films...

          Sad that he chooses to use those profits to pollute American politics with unabashed GOP propaganda...

          For a better America, vote the GOP out of office whenever and wherever possible and as soon (and as often) as possible!

          by dagnome on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 08:54:18 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  the radio monopoly was subsidized from start and (0+ / 0-)

        has been used as a highly successful and primary propaganda tool since Reagan killed the fairness doctrine.

        Community-dominating stations with well established ad bases were bought up by the hundreds and the right keeps using a 'free market' BS argument to justify their ability to short circuit democracy by being able to yell over everyone else.

        The notion RW radio's primary purpose is radio based profit is absurd.

        This is a list of 76 universities for Rush Limbaugh that endorse global warming denial, racism, sexism, and partisan lying by broadcasting sports on Limbaugh radio stations.

        by certainot on Wed Jun 06, 2012 at 03:59:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  RW radio sells war, GW denial, deregulation, tax b (0+ / 0-)

      breaks for billionaires, etc.

      People arguing RW radio is primarily a radio business are trolls or fools.

      This is a list of 76 universities for Rush Limbaugh that endorse global warming denial, racism, sexism, and partisan lying by broadcasting sports on Limbaugh radio stations.

      by certainot on Wed Jun 06, 2012 at 04:06:38 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Proven: democracy and RW radio cannot coexist (0+ / 0-)

    The free speech argument to leave RW radio to scream coordinated propaganda from one side is plain idiotic.

    This is a list of 76 universities for Rush Limbaugh that endorse global warming denial, racism, sexism, and partisan lying by broadcasting sports on Limbaugh radio stations.

    by certainot on Wed Jun 06, 2012 at 04:12:12 AM PDT

  •  Zapple Doctrine (0+ / 0-)

    Sue does not understand the FCC rules, Only the candidates qualify for equal time and then only to the time that the opposing candidate was on the air.  The Zapple doctrine is about time bought on the air.  No candidate no equal time, it is as simple as that.
    Zapple Doctrine

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