FCC on the Offensive

Say what you will about the FCC, but you have to admit they’re a scrappy bunch when it comes to pursuing their crackdown on broadcast “indecency.”  First they persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case they lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – the one about Cher and Nicole Ritchie uttering a couple of verboten words during Fox’s “Billboard Music Awards” shows.

Now the FCC crowd is asking the Supreme Court to hear yet another indecency case they lost – this one in the Third Circuit involving the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The Supreme Court hasn’t even ruled on the Fox case yet, and in fact heard oral argument only about a month ago (Nov. 4).  But the word on the street is that the justices seemed sympathetic to the FCC’s arguments in Fox – perhaps even sympathetic enough to rule in the agency’s favor.  Handicappers are predicting that a vote favoring the FCC would be slim (say 5 to 4) and decided on narrow procedural grounds, rather than reaching the constitutional issues.  IF the vote goes the FCC’s way at all, that is.  

The common wisdom, of course, is that predicting Supreme Court decisions based on oral argument is a fool’s errand.  So, an unreliable prediction that foresees such a tepid outcome would seem a double whammy, enough to give one pause.

But not the FCC.  They reportedly are buoyed by the oral argument in Fox to the point that they want to pile on with the Janet Jackson matter.  The Commission did, however, request that the High Court defer a decision on whether to hear the Third Circuit case until after the Court rules on the Second Circuit case.   

This begs the question of why the Commission petitioned the Court at this particular time at all.  (The Court is not likely to issue a ruling in Fox until next spring or summer.)  Maybe this is just the Commission’s way of warning broadcasters that the indecency watchdog is not about to roll over and play dead.  To this observer, however, it seems a transparent ploy that might well prove all bark and no bite.    

Fairness Doctrine: The Talk Goes On

The Fairness Doctrine, or at least talk of a reimposed Fairness Doctrine, just won’t go away.  It was finally killed off in 1987 but the current Democratic Congress has been making periodic noises about bringing it back.

The big question now seems to be what would happen under a President Obama.  Would he actively support a return of the doctrine?  Would he accede to a Congress controlled by his Democratic friends who put a Fairness Doctrine bill in front of him?  Would he dare (or bother) to go against his congressional allies and veto such a bill?

All we know for sure has been ferreted out by the hard-working John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable.  He reported back on June 25 that Obama’s press secretary, Michael Ortiz, told him that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," and that the candidate sees the issue as “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."

On Sept. 18, however, George Will opined that an Obama-led government would bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  Will wrote:

“Until Ronald Reagan eliminated it in 1987, that regulation discouraged freewheeling political programming by the threat of litigation over inherently vague standards of ‘fairness’ in presenting ‘balanced’ political views.  In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide.  Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats.  Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives’ dominance.”

Will’s comments have stirred the pot once again, particularly among right-leaning blogs where much of the speculation and hand-wringing takes place.

In support of Will’s assertion are two factors.  The first is that Obama need not actively support a reimposition of the doctrine to sign a bill pushed by his fellow Democrats.  The second is that his press secretary also told Eggerton that Obama supports “media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets" – in other words, the traditional Democratic media-policy platform in which the Fairness Doctrine plank would fit snugly.

The Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea for a lot of reasons.  It should be allowed to rest in peace.  Sen. McCain gets that, and has co-sponsored legislation to keep it dead.  Sen. Obama says he opposes a new Fairness Doctrine.

Yet George Will can be a hard person to bet against.  In the case of Obama and the Fairness Doctrine, however, I’m hoping Will is wrong.

Those “Outlaw” Television Networks?

George Carlin’s death on June 22 came only days before the 30th anniversary of what has become his legacy in Washington policy circles: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Pacifica decision.

That ruling centered on Carlin’s comedy bit "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" (commonly known as the “Seven Dirty Words” routine), and guided the FCC’s enforcement of so-called “indecent” broadcast content for the next 30 years.

The Parents Television Council took the opportunity of Pacifica’s anniversary July 3 to hammer the networks for daring to challenge the FCC’s indecency-enforcement regime.  “The broadcast medium remains uniquely pervasive," said PTC President Tim Winter.  “It’s time for the broadcast networks to obey the law instead of undermining it.”

The networks have indeed challenged a number of FCC indecency findings in recent years, reaching U.S. Courts of Appeal in the Second and Third circuits, and now the Supreme Court.

But the challenges have revolved, for the most part, around how the FCC defines and then goes about enforcing its indecency standards (now with a new emphasis on profanity as well) – rather than on the underlying law. 

The question has generally been whether the FCC’s interpretation of the law is valid, and whether the FCC is applying that interpretation in a way that is not arbitrary and capricious.  The networks have every right to challenge the FCC’s interpretation and actions, as they are presently doing.  That does not make the networks lawbreakers, as Mr. Winter disingenuously implies. 

The (Il)liberal Critics, Part II

Unless you hang in the fever swamps of the hard Left, you’re probably not aware that the group calling itself Free Press hosted last weekend the fourth annual National Conference for Media Reform.  Like the name of the host organization,  “media reform” is more a euphemism than a description of the group’s real agenda.  Mostly, what they’re interested in is using government to yoke the media — broadcasting in particular — to their ideology.

And what an ideology it is!  The president and founder of Free Press is one Robert McChesney, a professor of “communications” at the University of Illinois.  And he writes books. His latest, published by the book-publishing arm of what Wikipedia calls “an independent Marxist journal” (Monthly Review, of which McChesney was co-editor from 2000 to 2004), is titled The Political Economy of Media (PEM).

I recently sprang for the purchase of PEM because I saw that the good professor had written a chapter about the First Amendment.  Titled “The New Theology of the First Amendment: Class Privilege Over Democracy,” this chapter reveals, in remarkably transparent language, how real is the threat to the First Amendment from the Left.

But judge for yourself.  Herewith, some of McChesney’s observations on the subject, in a chapter that deals primarily with his unhappiness with the ACLU for its advocacy of what he characterizes as “extensions” of the First Amendment:

"In the hands of the wealthy, the advertisers and the corporate media, the newfangled First Amendment takes on an almost Orwellian caste.  It defends the right of the wealthy few to effectively control our electoral system, thereby taking the risk out of democracy for the rich, and making a farce of it for most everyone else.  These semi-monopolistic corporations that brandish the constitution as their personal property eschew any public service obligations, and claim that public efforts to demand them violate their First Amendment rights, which in their view means their unimpeded ability to maximize profit regardless of the social consequences….

"The job for progressives and activists, then, is to raise holy hell about our corrupt electoral system and our bogus corporate media system, and make it a key target of a social movement that takes direct aim at social inequality and class privilege….  And in the process of doing so we need to pressure the ACLU to return to its roots as a force for justice and democracy, or expose it as a liberal fig leaf for plutocracy."
 
PEM features more of the same — lots more — but you get the idea. The class struggle, the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie, the whole nine yards.  So the question you may be asking is why?  Why even mention Free Press or Robert McChesney? It’s not, after all, as though views such as his, or missions like that of Free Press, hoary and ludicrous though they are, are all that rare among academics in the liberal arts, or among left-wing activist organizations.

Sorry to say, the explanation is that Free Press is gathering strength among policymakers and regulators, many of whom (one hopes) are unaware of the group’s ideological underpinnings.  This, because the mainstream press have told us virtually nothing about the organization.  No I-teams or investigative reporters; no “following the money trail” here.  Though the group was only formed in 2002, it is these days accorded a matter-of-fact acceptance by mainstream journalists that is breathtaking.

Though Free Press is said to be the beneficiary of substantial funding from George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator and serial hypocrite, you can’t prove it by anything either party has divulged.  The only clue, shown in an IRS filing, is that the Soros-funded Open Society Institute is listed as a contributor.

Through its lobbying arm, the Free Press Action Fund, the group worked the halls of Congress recently in an ongoing campaign to undo the modest liberalization of media ownership rules recently enacted by the FCC.  And just last weekend, two FCC Commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, were featured speakers at the above-mentioned National Conference for Media Reform.

If, as appears to be the case, liberalism in the U.S. is on the rise, it’s going to be interesting, and perhaps of some moment, to see how, and in what ways, liberals deal with hard Left activists like the Free Press crowd.

Cross Ownership: That ’70s Show in the Senate

There they go again. No, not the FCC.  This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.  The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.

In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.

The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions.  The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”

There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way.  Could the reason be political?  Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups.  The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is.  Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil.  But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival. 

Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public.  The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.

It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity.  The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands.  It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod.