Media reform groups launch campaign for improved public affairs programming

Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition launches efforts at broadcasters’ annual convention in Vegas

On Tuesday, April 20, Common Cause joined five media reform groups at a press conference at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention in Las Vegas. The groups announced the formal launch of a petition campaign to improve the coverage of local elections and public affairs by broadcasters, and the formation of the Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition. Also participating in the press event were Federal Communications Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who have been outspoken critics of FCC approval of increased media consolidation.

“The FCC is supposed to ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest in exchange for free use of the public airwaves,” Adelstein said. “But the FCC’s specific public interest obligations have been so weakened that broadcasters have very little that they must prove to the public to keep their license.” Copps made the same point, noting that the FCC must act soon to address broadcasters’ public interest obligations before the industry completes its transition to digital television.

“We are here to say to broadcasters, ‘You can do better,'” said Common Cause advocacy vice president Celia Wexler. “We are here to present broadcasters with a new vision of television, one that permits their news staffs and producers to use their creativity to connect their audiences to their local, state and national governments, and to engage viewers in lively discussions and debates about issues they care about.” Wexler added that coalition members could not spend the $150 million on campaign contributions and lobbying that the five major station groups and their corporate parents and the NAB have spent since 1997. But, she said, “We have the public on our side. What happens today in Vegas will not stay in Vegas.”

Also speaking at the press conference were Meredith McGehee, president, Alliance for Better Campaigns; Jonathan Rintels, executive director, Center for Creative Voices in Media; Tim Karr, executive director, Media Channel, and Gloria Tristani, a former FCC Commissioner now director of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ.

The trade media and local Las Vegas newspapers covered the press conference. ABC correspondent John Cochran also referred to the coalition’s press event when he moderated an NAB panel with four FCC Commissioners later on Tuesday.

The Public Interest, Public Airwaves coalition has asked the FCC to approve specific public interest guidelines for broadcasters. Those guidelines would require that broadcasters air three hours a week of programming sometime between 5 p.m. and 11:35 p.m. That translates into 25 minutes a day dedicated to informing citizens, with about 13 minutes of that time to be aired during the most-watched time of day.

The guidelines don’t dictate what that programming should be. But they give examples of public affairs programming that truly serves the public. Local civic programming includes broadcasts of interviews with or statements by elected or appointed officials, and relevant policy experts on issues of importance to the community.

In the weeks preceding an election, broadcasters would to be expected to use two hours of their three-hour public interest programming obligation to inform voters in the following ways: airing candidate-centered discourse focusing on the local, state and congressional races within the licensee’s broadcast area. Local electoral affairs programming includes broadcasts of candidate debates, interviews, or statements, as well as substantive discussions of ballot measures that will be put before the voters in a forthcoming election. Poll and money-focused “horse race” coverage of elections that fail to inform voters how candidates stand on issues would not satisfy the public interest requirements.

Twenty groups are part of the coalition, which includes the Center for Voting and Democracy, the Center for Digital Democracy, the New America Foundation, the Benton Foundation,, People for the American Way, True Majority, the Center for Voting and Democracy, Free Press, the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

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