An interesting scenario is playing out in Milwaukee as local residents, rallying around the efforts of the Media Action Center (MAC), are fighting the renewal of FCC licenses for 620 WTMJ and News/Talk 1130 WISN due to their biased political leanings.
The fight started in May during the lead up to the Wisconsin Recall election. Since then, community members have been monitoring the time allotted to each political demographic in an effort to restore balance to the public airwaves.
Clear Channel-owned WISN is home to such right wing pundits as Mark Belling, Jay Weber, Vicki McKenna, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. So, activists are hoping to have the station's FCC license revoked on the grounds that its bias does not meet the standards of renewal under the Zapple Doctrine which protects the First Amendment rights of candidates and their supporters by ensuring their voice can be heard on public airwaves. This doctrine replaced the Fairness Doctrine, dismantled in the 1980’s, which called for "good faith" efforts to give equal time to all sides during the entire year.
Current standards call for fair time in the 60 days leading up to an election, but MAC found that WISN and WTMJ personalities worked as unofficial surrogates for Gov. Scott Walker granting him $744,000 of free air time in the first 15 days of the recall election cycle. By comparison, his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett received just $4,800.
During a press conference, local MAC member Randy Bryce said,
“We are asking the FCC to deny these licenses on the grounds that [WISN and WTMJ] are willfully breaking existing FCC rules during political campaigns, and worse, they are violating the First Amendment rights of members of this community.”
On average, WISN gave Walker and his Republican supporters 77 minutes of free airtime each day, while giving Barrett and his supporters 1 minute of time daily.
On average, WTMJ gave Walker and his supporters 79 minutes of free airtime each day, while pro-Barrett messages got four seconds and Democrats received 56 seconds of coverage per day.
Based on the stations’ advertising costs, MAC estimated that the stations provided $15,000 to $30,000 of free airtime daily to Walker and his supporters, or $744,000 in the first 15 days of the recall election cycle. Barrett, on the other hand, received just $4,800 worth of airtime over 15 days.
When supporters of Democrats contacted the stations to ask for comparable time on the air under the Zapple Doctrine, WTMJ responded by saying that it did not have to provide it. WISN did not respond to their requests.
In addition to promoting Walker and his fellow Republicans, WISN also allowed guests to recruit pro-Walker volunteers while on the air.
Media bias has always been difficult to police. A long battle is ahead for Wisconsin airwaves activists since the FCC seems less than interested in enforcing the Zapple Doctrine. The last published decision on such a case was in 1992.
Chris Terry, a lecturer on media law at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has argued that the Zapple Doctrine’s exemption for “bona fide news” gives the station a basis for arguing Sykes’ and Belling’s shows should not be regulated. He said that MAC deserves respect for bringing this issue to the forefront but noted that the FCC is unlikely to rule in their favor:
“One of the reasons we are where we are with content regulation, and that there isn’t a mechanism in place to protect this other [political] speech, is that the FCC has sort of thrown the television and radio markets to the wolves and said, ‘You guys sort it out…. We’re going to let the market decide what the content should be,’” Terry said. “For better or worse, that’s where they are. But I’m skeptical that the marketplace works as well as the FCC believes that it does.”